grace de morgan: a writer’s life

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Melbourne-based writer Grace De Morgan is making her way as a playwright. She discusses her aspirations, the creative process and the need for women in the arts to support each other with Melissa Cowan.

Grace and I both studied Communications in Sydney, where we made some bizarre documentaries together and were often told we looked like sisters. I’ve always admired Grace’s tenacity and talent for writing and feel privileged to be able to learn more about this inspiring lady.

Here’s what Grace had to say…

My writing style is dark comedy with a touch of magical realism. I don’t really write straight comedy or drama because I don’t think that’s what life’s like. It’s a little bit funny and a little bit heartbreaking. Usually at the same time.

I’m motivated by witty artists with a social conscience and how good art can affect change.

Process-wise, I’ll usually sit down, read the last page or two that I wrote then bust out some more. I rewrite a lot, so getting stuff down isn’t the hard part – it’s making something out of it in the revision that’s tricky.

There’ve been quite a few career dead ends in the last few years. I’ve written four full-length plays, but three are likely to never see production. So naturally there have been quite a few “Maybe I’m not a playwright” moments. To be honest, I’m not sure that’ll ever go away.

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Also, I’m not great at applying for grants and funding, so most of my writing has been subsidised by some pretty average jobs. That can be quite exhausting and demoralising. But – hey – at least I get to write stuff that excites me with no limits, except the ones I set myself.

A large part of the challenge for me has also been getting used to rejection and/or just never hearing back from people or companies. I have to keep reminding myself that most of the time it’s not personal – there might be another piece that’s too similar, someone else might have had a game-changing idea, the work might not be the right fit for that time or venue. But that can be hard to remember when you just gave up months of your time and a chunk of your heart to one piece of writing.

But, oh my goodness, when things start gelling for you – UGH – there’s nothing like it.

I just read the play The Nether by Jennifer Haley and am currently reading The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m loving how aggressively flawed their female characters are. Even though it should be considered basic to make your male and female characters equally nuanced, it doesn’t happen often enough. I think that’ll change as more female and feminist male writers come to the fore though.

Last month, I did a script development with Playwriting Australia, working on my play Cull Your Facebook Friends. Basically I was boarded up in a room for a week with some of the best actors and creatives Sydney has, all there to workshop the play. Lots of rewriting, lots of questions that I didn’t have the answers to yet, lots of black tea. It was pretty intense, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Similarly, going on Australian Theatre for Young People’s National Studio was also a huge, stupidly fun learning curve for me. Having a week away with a bunch of young playwrights from around Australia was a dream (I love hanging out with playwrights – so reflective, so earnest, yet SO up for a good time). That’s where I met my friend Josh Forward. We ended up co-founding a theatre collective called The Oligarchs and producing a show called CIRCUIT at the Old Fitz. It had a two-week run as part of the Rocks Pop Up Project and then ended up getting picked up by the Old Fitz for a month. So it turned into this evolving six-week production with some of the funniest writers and actors I know. It was kind of like school camp – lots of over-sharing, injuries and little to no sleep (not enough sneaky pashes though). To date that’s the production I’m most proud of.

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When I was younger, I used to write big, big narratives in way too small a timeframe and word count. We’re talking the whole plot of a Tolstoy novel in a 500 word creative writing assignment. Then as I got older, I tried to scale back and write smaller stories inside a more appropriate timeframe and medium. But now I’m back to writing big, ambitious narratives.

I love how everything slows down when you write.

I have a lot of thoughts often more quickly than I’d like, but when I write things feel clearer. When I write, it feels like everything focuses and it’s one of the times I’m most present.

Playwright Jez Butterworth described writing a play like “deep sea diving, you wouldn’t want to do it alone.” But the fact is you are often alone – whether it’s to decide which direction to take your work or to push through your own inconvenient emotional baggage. And that can be exhausting.

Weighing up making an income with the desire to create art is a balance I’m still figuring out. It feels like sometimes it’s all about the income and other times it’s all about the art. I’m probably working more than I’d like to right now, but I believe that there’s a season for everything. This season for me includes working quite hard so that I can lay down a foundation for an enduring writing career.

I love being a woman. And I love being a writer. Nine times out of ten, I don’t feel like being a woman affects how my content is perceived. I’m lucky to have felt really supported by both men and women so far. That’s not to say gender is never an issue though. The talent is out there – the stories just haven’t made it onto the stage yet.

The everyday challenge for me is the way women are socialised to compete against each other. There have been times where I’ve had moments of great anxiety when I’ve seen one of my female peers succeed where I haven’t. I think we get sold the lie that there’s only a limited amount of opportunities for women, so if another woman is doing well she’s got your spot at the table and you’ve somehow failed. It’s a warped logic and you have to constantly remind yourself to run your own race. Or better yet, be like this hypnotic GIF…

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(Source: Tumblr)

Only a handful of theatre companies are actually making the grade when it comes to gender parity and diversity. If companies are obligated to have at least half of their season be by women, people of non-Caucasian background, creatives with disabilities and/or members of the LGBTIQ community, we’re bound to get more interesting and more relevant work. It’s going to take centuries for women and minorities to populate the canon with more diverse work, so really we need to make a change now.

I’m burning with all the things I want to do.

At the moment, I’m really excited about Cull Your Facebook Friends. I want to get it staged in 2017 with a cast I’m really proud of. I also want to start research on my new play soon and maybe even have a draft by the end of the year. And – hey – if a commission came along, I wouldn’t say no.

I’d also like to get more involved in developing other women’s work, in particular Indigenous or Deaf stories. I don’t feel comfortable writing those plays myself, but if there was any capacity I could support other women to do that, I’d be up for it.

Grace De Morgan, 28, is a writer currently living in Melbourne. She lives on her own with a succulent named Steve and a cactus called Randy. You can find her on her website or Instagram.

Interview: Melissa Cowan Photography: Kate Disher-Quill