Sian Ní Mhuirí is an Irish screenwriter, theatre-maker and poet. In 2013, she founded Super Paua – a theatre company that makes brave work for young audiences. Over the years, she has been awarded several residencies and writer awards for her work. Now with a new animated series on RTÉ2, Sian shares her best career advice with us.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Always. I also wanted to be Indiana Jones (impractical) and/or the president, but writing has always been the main ambition. As a child, I used to write short novels and awfully trite poetry, even by primary school standards. I have improved substantially, according to my mother.
In college, I studied… theatre. I did the practical, backstage theatre degree in one of those London drama schools. To say I was out of my depth is an understatement, but being 18 in London was a real trip – I enjoyed it immensely.
My most formative work experience was… co-running a theatre company called Super Paua with collaborators Mark Ball, Heather Rose and Mitzi D’Alton. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I was sad to step away from it when I moved from theatre to screen-writing.
My first real job was… as a waitress in a wine bar in Gorey. I’ve never had a nine-to-five, but I’ve had more part-time and seasonal jobs than I’ve had hot meals; waitress, nanny, tour guide, party entertainer, stage manager, sound operator, usher, runner, tourist office attendant, chaperone, drama teacher, manager of a residency centre, and once I was paid to be the official face of rejection for the public Star Wars audition. I had to individually break the news to 3,000 auditionees that they’d been booted out after the first round.
The most invaluable thing I learned early on in my career was… be honest, be rigorous and do what is right, not what is easy. A reputation for integrity is hard to build up, and easy to break with a few misguided decisions. Also, be reliable, and include everyone in the drinks round/coffee run, not just the most powerful people in the room!
A common misconception about what I do is… that I’m involved in animating the cartoons I work on. I have zero input after the script stage. Usually, I sign off on my episodes, and it takes another two years for them to reach the screen.
My main responsibility in work is to…solve story problems and work to a tight brief. When you’re writing episodes for a TV show, it’s your job to sound like yourself, while also representing the vision and tone of the creator. This also involves getting notes, and taking critique with grace and good humour. The producer doesn’t like your joke on page five? Don’t die on that hill. If you’re funny enough, you will have ten more jokes in the bag, and one of them will stick.
Do you have a career mentor or someone you look up to/seek advice from?
Carol Walsh, one of Ireland’s best and funniest screen-writers, has been an invaluable mentor in my transition to animation. Cathy Devis is the drama teacher I had in secondary school and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. Lately, she’s been trying to get me to sea-swim – her only failure as a mentor. I am too weak for the Irish sea.
The biggest risk I have taken in my career so far is… leaving the theatre world behind. I focused on a theatre career from the age of 18 to 30, and then pivoted during the pandemic. Moving into screenwriting was the best professional decision I have ever made, but the learning curve has been steep and I carry some sadness too… thinking of what might have been if I’d stayed the course.
I wake at… 7am when I’m in a good routine, 9 or 10 when I lose the run of myself. I often lose the run of myself.
The first thing I do every morning is… read in bed. I read in English first, and in Irish, too, if I’m in a self-improving mood. Clearly, I do not have children.
My morning routine is… coffee, reading, wordle, nerdle, quordle, and a bowl of overnight oats.
I can’t go to work without… it sounds so basic, but coffee. And sugary snacks. If I wasn’t afraid of diabetes, I would eat dessert for every meal. I mean, wouldn’t we all? I still get excited in the supermarket sweet aisle, and have a treat drawer that is always well stocked.
I travel to work by… walking down the stairs in my dressing gown. The perks of self-employment.
On an average workday I… write before lunch, and then my creative brain shuts down until evening. I think most human brains cannot think new, original thoughts for more than four hours a day. So once I’ve done a good stretch of focused writing, I edit my work, take meetings, answer emails, watch cartoons (research!), or run errands.
I break for lunch at… around 1pm and I usually eat fistfuls of ingredients that in no way resemble a meal. It is not uncommon to see me scarf down an apple, a hunk of cheese, a handful of nuts, a tin of mackerel, white chocolate buttons and half a courgette. At dinner time, I tend to make a more meal-shaped meal, but I’m not an enthusiastic cook, and I eat for fuel and not for fun in the daytime.
The most useful business tool I use every day is… the printer. I can’t edit my writing on a screen, so I print out my work, lay it on the floor, and prowl over it like a weirdo. I also burn through post-it notes like no one’s business. I use them to lay out the structure of stories and re-arrange the action.
I save time by… doing my best work in my pyjamas. Sometimes, around 2pm, I decide to get dressed, but outside-clothes are not mandatory for cartoon creation.
I rarely get through my working day without… losing focus. Procrastination is necessary, leisure is a human right. I try not to beat myself up for ‘wasting time’ – I put my brain through a lot, and it’s good to be nice to her when she gets jittery.
The best part of my day is… hanging out with my pals when work is done. I love my work, but I do it so I can have a good life… and a good life is full of good people.
The most challenging part of my day is… the first 20 minutes at the computer. You know that crushing existential dread that you get when you start a new creative task? Like you might fail horribly because you’re a miserable, stupid little worm? It never goes away. You just learn to expertly ignore it, and know that the feeling only lasts around 20 minutes if you apply yourself and attack the task at hand. But the beginning of writing always feels a bit like death.
I know it’s been a good day if… I feel excited about the future, and proud of something I’ve created.
I usually end my day at… 11 or 12pm. I’m working on getting to sleep earlier, but night time is very magical.
I switch off from work by… reading, swimming, taking a bath, or hanging out with friends.
Before I go to bed, I… check out the Sub-Reddit Am I The Asshole?, as a way to soothe myself before sleep. This may suggest I am, in fact, one myself.
I often prepare for tomorrow by… obsessively making to-do lists. I have accepted that I never tick all the items off. But it’s the writing of the list, the self-soothing of it, that helps me feel like the working week is in my control.
After a long work week, I destress by… going out-out. A lot of my friends work in live events, so there’s usually a good club night or show going on which I can swing by at the weekend. I go swimming or to the gym, and I consciously re-charge. I try to spend at least one day a week on my own, at my leisure, and in relative silence.
The accomplishment I’m most proud of is… quitting the drink. Life has its ups and downs, but I am a very happy person. I enjoy the bejaysus out of many, many things. And I am convinced that both my recent career successes and my generally improved mood are a direct result of my decision, four years ago, to get sober. It changed every single aspect of my life for the better, and I often forget to give myself credit for how hard it was to do.
If you want to get into my line of work, my advice is to… value your own voice. Your job as a writer is to hone your perspective and your humour, and offer it to the world. So work hard at finding out who you are, how you sound, and what stories you care about. And then – it sounds so basic – WRITE. Don’t talk about writing, don’t day dream about Oscars, just battle the crushing existential dread by putting pen to paper.
I’ve just finished working on… Royals Next Door, a hilarious animated family sitcom for RTÉ Kids about a royal family downsizing to an ordinary home. The latest episodes just started airing on RTÉ2. I also wrote all the episodes for Stella’s Royal Vlog, which is a spin-off diary series exclusively on YouTube. It’s from the point of view of the 13-year-old main character Princess Stella as she tries to figure out her new identity and adjust to some big changes. At the moment, I’m working on one more play – probably my last for many years. It’s a bilingual story-telling piece based on an old Bardic tale called The Sons of Tuireann. It’s going to be an absolute stonker, a real rollicking, action-packed story. Follow me on Instagram (@sian_ni_mhuiri) for more details in the coming year!