Sunday, April 27, 2008

writing through

After the incredible frustration of the last post, I have broken through some of it.

I was doing character research and realized that I was trying to force the play and the characters to be something they aren't. I am thinking this play is going to turn out to be something else entirely, which is fine and good. sometimes i forget who is REALLY in charge of my writing.

I came up with a new character who I saw in one instant, complete, walking around, and a huge chunk from the play that was missing. It was so strange, but it was good, and I knew it was right, because I felt that knot of anxiety, frustration and upsettedness just disappear the second he walked through the door in the play. And the funny part? All he did was enter, look around the room, hook his thumbs onto his belt and stand there, working a toothpick in his mouth. It was like he was just waiting in the wings for his time on stage, and came on and waited for me to direct him. Or, rather, he waited until I was ready so I could hear what he had to say and see what he had to do. I had so much of a giant storm of frustration and anxiety about this play that I couldn't see I had a fully formed character just waiting for the right moment.

What else is funny about Abe is that that is a huge part of his character: he's just enough off-kilter to make everyone think he's the strangest guy ever, but he's cool with it, he is who is he, and he isn't made to feel like he made a mistake by just being himself. And he's a patient man. VERY patient man. I mean, he waited weeks for me to notice him, he's got the patience of a saint!

So I kept at it. I just kept reading and writing and crossing out and getting frustrated and wanting to throw the play out and go be an accountant, but instead of just indulging in what would make me supposedly feel better, I just kept writing. I know intellectually that that is a hard thing to do. I don't think emotionally it's registered yet with me that I wrote through.

It was like when I was dating Tad, and I had to write the play I had submitted a proposal for prior to spring break for a reading in the next school year. I had written a scant few scenes, but really hadn't finished the play, and i thought that might be bad luck. And despite the fact that it caused fights and friction between Tad and I for other reasons, I was on the plane back home and i realized that I had written an entire play in a week. And I smiled to myself as I realized it and I smiled for weeks afterwards. But it didn't dawn on me when I did it, it was only after when I was doing something else.

I trusted my mind and it took me there. Thanks, Buddha!

Also, I was watching 'Step it up and Dance' on Bravo yesterday morning. At one point before Tovah got eliminated, one of the judges told her something along the lines of the following: 'You're a beautiful girl, completely gorgeous, but when I see you dance, I don't see someone who has to dance or die.' Tovah was a good dancer, but it did seem she had no heart to it. She felt blocked, like she had something to write, or in her case, dance through, before she really saw what it would do for her (she's only 21 I think so she has plenty of time).

And that's what it is. Regardless of your art you do, dance, painting, writing, singing, whatever, it's do it or die. If you can go without doing it and you don't die inside, then do something else. The only reason to do this is because your every heartbeat and breath depend on you doing it.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I've been working on this play that came from a portion of my 365 project. It's working title is 'All Shook Up'. It came from an idea that a young woman was being visited by Young Elvis in her dreams and in each dream, they end up making love, and eventually, the young woman finds herself pregnant, without having had sex in waking life. The first scene I wrote was a disjointed dream sequence during which she gets a call about her sick mother and after she realizes Elvis has once again left the building, she has her first bout of morning sickness.

This was fascinating for me, because I am interested in magical realism. I'm not sure this actually falls into that category since my heroine, Rebecca, is just having these dreams about Elvis, but I like the idea that something from her dream life has hopped the gap into her waking life. That sort of thing really gets my brain excited.

But the waking life scenes, which comprise most of the play, aren't jiving at all with the dream scenes. I know that dreams are really crazy and disjointed and they don't need to follow the rules of waking life, but I feel like in a play or any other form of writing, the dreams need to reflect something that is going on in the rest of the play. And I think that's the trouble I'm having. I mean, am I wrong to think that? I've always been told that everything in the play has to propel it forward to it's natural end. If things don't do that, they need to be tossed. But what are you supposed to do when trying to force the dreams to work within the context of the waking life parts of the play the dreams just kind of deflate?

I know what the problem is: it's trying to force the play to fit within the parameters I want it to fit into. And that doesn't work in my experience, but I'm just stuck with this idea that the dreams have to reflect the waking life.

Maybe I'm just being too literal about it. Maybe I'm being too bash you over the head with the message of the dreams. Maybe I can be more obtuse about it without being all performance arty about it. I don't know what to do about it, but it's definitely a source of frustration.

I think what I will do is continue to flog it and see what happens.

I'm also frustrated because while the events in the play itself are kind of extraordinary, the people of the play are pretty damn flat. I think it's because I haven't done enough character work, but I feel kind of like these characters are just NOT going to open up. Maybe I named them wrong (that has happened before; give a character the wrong name and he or she will just stare at you, like you took away his or her voice). Maybe they're in the wrong play. But I don't think so. I think Mama Playwright has just been lazy.

Lately, my self-esteem has been flagging as a playwright. I'm not sure why exactly. Nothing in particular has happened. I've been reading some good plays and I've been reading a book called 'One Continuous Mistake: Four Nobel Truths for Writers' by Gail Sher, which might be the source of the problem.

I was going to write about this book in another post, but I guess I could write about it now. I try not to buy new books about the writing process. It's a plague that has spread: reading about writing instead of writing. It's easier that way, to commiserate with someone who has more writing experience and such, and then not write yourself. And it's a temptation. But 'One Continuous Mistake' takes the Buddhist principles behind The Four Noble Truths and applies them to writing in a way.

Sher outlines the Four Noble Truths for Writers on the back of the book:

  • writers write
  • writing is a process
  • you don't know what your writing will be until the end of the process
  • if writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write
And that's some powerful shit right there. All truth. No bullshit. She cut right through it all and just says it. This is what writers do.

And that's what you get with Buddhism in general, a cutting through all the bullshit to the heart of the matter.

This book says it simply. Making writing your practice means you give attention to showing up every day to write. No exceptions. Because to not show up is to fail. And there's something wrong anyway when you don't write. Everything feels off, until you sit down and the words come.

I think the distractions Sher talks about in this book are mounting a heavy attack on me in the form of self esteem issues, because that has been the biggest block to writing for me in the past. And the same old song and dance go a little something like this:

  • your writing is stale, it's been done before, you have nothing to say
  • just because you've been published doesn't mean you're good
  • nobody is responding to your work you've sent out because you suck
  • all your characters sound alike and you will never figure out how to make them different
  • all your ideas are stupid
and so on, and so forth until I just stop writing all together.

and this can't happen.

so some of the frustration with this work is because I'm trying to distract myself, or rather, allow myself to be distracted. And this is the time to really just work through it. It's just hard to do it on your own sometimes, so being able to write it out definitely helps. And it takes the power out of the self esteem issues in a way.

This could start a whole rant about self esteem issues and depression, but I think it's time to end this post and get ready to go get to work.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

x files

Someday I will write about my own writing, I swear.

For Christmas this year, Bill bought me the entire series of The X Files. God, do I love that show. I remember spending pretty much the entire time I was at Black Hawk OBSESSED with this show. I had cable on and off after I left the Quad Cities, so I lost touch with the show somewhere around season six or seven, and it was probably just as well, since it really sucked during what is termed 'The Doggett Years'. But I got it, and it's awesome, so we are watching the entire series.

I have to say, the show is not nearly as good in some respects watching it again. The first season should be handled with kid gloves since the show was still trying to figure out who it was, and Darin Morgan hadn't really started writing regularly (and Chris Carter was, which is to say, similar to George Lucas writing his own dialogue, but I digress...). There were some great episodes in season one though. 'Ice' was so much better than I remember and 'Beyond the Sea' is still one of my all time favorite episodes in terms of writing and acting, and really, Eugene Victor Tooms from 'Squeeze' and 'Tooms' is the total bomb. It's just too bad that character ended the way he did that season because he would have been fun as hell to see again. And 'Eve'. The casting director on that show was a frigging genius. There was never an end to the amazing actors who played total wierdos. But the acting and writing were awkward, Scully needed a desperate wardrobe and make-up make-over, and Mulder wasn't delivering his trademark quips as much.

But season two is where things really start cooking. Gillian Anderson's real life pregnancy caused a serious change in the show. Without it, the rest of the series would have been different. In order to facilitate her absence from the show to give birth, Scully was abducted. There was an amazing two part episode 'Duane Barry' and 'Ascension' during which this happened. There was a really horrible episode between 'Ascension' and 'One Breath' called '3', which will never be spoken of or watched again. Terrible. I can't even adequated describe how badly written this episode was.

Here's the thing. The first season was a slow slow SLOW build. Nothing these days has a build like that. If The X Files started today, it wouldn't have lasted. Obviously, I am glad Fox took the chance on it, but it also shows me that starting in the middle of the action is so important. There were other problems with this show, like creator Chris Carter's lack of planning and his rumored inability to keep a show bible (which shows that when you're writing something of this magnitude, you have to keep a bible to keep it straight, or you end up with everything going to hell in a hand basket.

The thing is, the idea of Scully being abducted seemed so spur of the moment, at least in terms of television. And sometimes that can be good. I am all about spur of the moment and going with the flow of the work. But as I'm watching this show again, I am realizing how much it really does pay off to examine what you're doing closely and try not to force your hand in the work.

Monday, April 14, 2008


I've been thinking a lot about voice, and the differences in voice in characters. I've had this problem consistently with my characters that they all sound the same. I've been seriously writing plays for four years now, and one would think that I would have the whole voice thing sorted out. I don't think it's that big of a problem for some plays as it is for others. But a play I was reading at the doctor's office today made me think more about it.

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for 2008, and that's pretty awesome. I have a copy of Bug somewhere that I bought to read and promptly misplaced (as it is with SO many things I buy--I need to stop being such a clutterbug!) and I kept hearing great things about August: Osage County so when Bill and I were in Little Rock on Sunday, I bought a copy of it. The next day he won the Pulitzer for it. I've been carrying it in my bag since Sunday and while I was waiting at the doctor office, I read it. I'm about halfway through.

I'm so absorbed by this play! It's just absolutely beautiful, and I get it so hard, it hurts, you know? Like the emotional component to the play is suffocating with family issues and the past and the present and the future crashing all down on these people. MAN. I love this play so far.

But this post is not about me gushing my love for this play. This post is about voice. The characters in this play, they are all very distinctive on paper. Especially Violet. I love the way Letts writes the dialogue, like he's coping it verbatim from his head. DUH. Of course that's what you do. Letts has a wonderful sense of voice for his characters. They all have very distinctive voices, and I would do well to learn now to capture the essense of the character in his or her voice that makes him or her unique to everyone else in the play. Sometimes characters sound alike. But even when the characters I'm dealing with come from the same ilk, they need to have voice things that make them different. I still have to learn to do this.


My whole life has heavily revolved around music. I became obsessed at the ripe age of nine perhaps, when my friend, Tracie, and I discovered Duran Duran. From there I went through the crappy pop music phase (Nelson? Linear? Srsly) and the hair metal phase (first concert: Firehouse opening for Slaughter, which Tracie won tickets to and we went together) and the late setting in cornchip phase with Jennifer. Jennifer and I had a public access show on music (I kid you NOT) and we both wrote for a new defunct music magazine in the Quad Cities, OIL, the Music Magazine, and the Rock Island Argus.

There was a long time where I wanted to be a music journalist, and that dream died when I realized journalism would suck my soul away, and I decided I liked my soul.

But writing about music never stopped.

In fact, I have several works inspired by Stuart Davis, Elvis Costello, and tons of others. Music has always been so important to me.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was listening to 'Closing Time' by Leonard Cohen. I am a very late comer to Leonard Cohen. I discovered him by reading an entertainment magazine while I was waiting for my car's tires to get put on. There was an article about a movie that was made about him and his music and his influence, 'I'm Your Man' and the magazine reprented the lyrics. I read them and I had one of those moments where my breath was just snatched by the words to this song. I hadn't heard it ever, I was pretty sure I'd never heard Leonard Cohen sing before, but I was obsessed and had to hear that song. After I heard it, I was hooked.

How does this relate to my plays? There's this emotional experience I have when I hear certain songs: 'Closing Time', 'Lightning Crashes' by Live, 'Am I Wrong' by Love Spit Love, "The Luckiest' by Ben Folds, 'Back to Black' by Amy Winehouse, 'Half-Life' by Duncan Sheik, 'Slide Away' by Oasis...there's so many more, but there's an emotional reaction and experience I have when I hear these songs that I would love to translate into my writing. I want others to get that charge from my work that I get from a good song.

The funny thing is, if I do accomplish this, if I give a work I create an emotional charge that I feel I get from a song, how am I going to know if anyone else feels it, experiences it? I don't think I would ever know. And I don't think I should be bothered by it either. If I feel it, certainly others should be able to feel it. I just hope that's how it ends up.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

All in the Family

First, I hate the title for this work. There's already a TV show with that name and I don't need my work getting confused with that, not that there's anything wrong with that, but anyway...

This play started as part of my version of Suzan-Lori Parks' 365 project. I wrote seven scenes from this play, and right now, it looks like all seven are going to stay. There's definitely got to be some expanding of that work because there's things that are happening too soon in the play that should happen later, and that sort of thing.

The play revolves around Amber and Billy, and their quest to become pregnant. After yet another negative result, Amber and Billy's father, Peter, decide that maybe they should use his sperm to inseminate her eggs, since Billy's seems to be lacking. Billy, is, of course, not too keen on this idea, especially since Peter's much younger and very recently acquired girlfriend, Samba, is pregnant, and Billy thinks Peter is just using this as another opportunity to down him.

I'm still playing around with a bunch of different ideas for it, but right now I need to focus on artificial insemination and everything involved in that. I believe the internet will be fun for me tonight.

Introducing 'Dramatecture'

This is my playwriting blog. I will write about new ideas for plays, detail the construction of new work and characters, and write way too much about playwriting theories and such in general. Welcome.