Where Ideas Come From
By Hannah Khalil, Playwright
I’m at a post-show q & a after a performance of a short play of mine. I try to be as open as I can at these events but it’s hard not to feel anxious and a bit defensive. You never know what people might ask or say and I’ve had bad experiences in the past… A woman near the back’s hand shoots up and the moderator picks her.
“A question for Hannah” I cross my legs, stomach lurching a little, “your play was interesting and everything—but why didn’t you write about brides of ISIS?”
“Why didn’t I write about—?”
Photo: Richard Saker
“Brides of ISIS—it’s a really interesting thing in the news and I’d like to know more about it.”
This happens all the time when you say you are a writer. People offer you ideas—things you should write about in their opinion. Mostly it’s annoying. Because half the job of being a writer—or maybe more than half—maybe 60%, maybe even 70%—is having ideas. And they often come when you’re not looking—at any time, day or night.
- after an argument when you are deeply annoyed you weren’t more articulate
- in the shower (you wouldn’t believe how many writers have told me they come up with ideas or solve problems while they’re showering)
- when you find out something you didn’t know and you feel ignorant and want to remedy that
- or even when you’re breastfeeding at 4am.
Mostly my ideas are borne out of frustration. I have a keen sense of injustice and when I hear something is happening in the world that affronts me I spend time ranting about it online and to my friends and then—when they’re sick of me talking—I usually end up writing a play about it. Palestine. Racism. Motherhood. Detention.
But sometimes the idea is given to you. Sometimes when someone suggests something you might write about it sparks into a flame. Like my play The Scar Test. I was approached by actor/producer Nadia Nadif who asked me if I’d ever considered writing about women in detention in the UK. Specifically in Yarlswood detention centre. I didn’t even know people were detained and I was so ashamed by my ignorance I made it my mission to educate myself on the subject. And in so doing I became enraged with the injustice of the detention system in the UK (as per the paragraph above) and ended up writing The Scar Test.
But that’s pretty rare for me. I do tend to come up with my ideas myself—like I said it’s part of the writer’s job. So with all this in my head I turn to the woman in the back row.
“I didn’t want to write about Brides of ISIS—I wanted to write the piece you saw”.
“Yeah but Brides of ISIS would have been really interesting”.
“Then why don’t you write about that?” I said.
I really, really hope she did.