Monday, October 26, 2009

Countdown Day 5: Tools of the Trade

I've been a writer of some stripe since I could pick up a pencil and string words together. Perhaps before that: I recall distinctly being quite young, like 6 or so, and creating a picture book, only a couple pages long, called 'Cats at Work', mostly illustrating what my mother and father do at work all day. Cats in ties and cats in dresses vaccuuming. That was my first book.

Since then, I've become something of a kleptomaniac when it comes to nice pens. I'm not talking nice pens, like they cost $50 and have refills and fancy holders and such (although I do have a very nice wooden pen set given to me on the occasion of my bachelor's degree by my wonderful friend, Minda, and her amazing husband, Bill, two of the best friends a girl could ever ask for). I'm talking pens that leak just a little bit. Pens that have a good scent to the ink. Pens that feel good in the hand. Pens that write swiftly. And if you give me a pen to sign a form and it happens to fall into one of those categories, the odds of you getting it back are slim. Be forewarned.

I've also become a huge fan of paper in general. If you were to see my office, you would see I have nice journals, lots of those notebooks that go for 10 cents on sale during school supply season, multi-subject notebooks, strange odds and ends from Big Lots, loose leaf name it, I probably have it. It's actually becoming something of a problem.

My name is Toni. I'm addicted to office supplies. Don't get me started on labels, notecards, high lighters, folders, binders...we could be here all night.

Then there's some things that are tools that are more like habits I have developed. And one of them is a problem for national playwriting month: writing long hand. It's a habit I cultivated in college that has worked very well for me, even to this day, and even through my bout with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. There's something more primal and immediate for me about writing long hand--the paper, the pen (this is where the smell of the ink comes in). It's the tactile experience of writing that keeps me going. I've tried to type first drafts, but it's harder for me. The inspiration doesn't come; it just isn't comfortable. Handwriting my drafts means I really have NO IDEA what my page count is until I actually type it up. Last year, I tried to type it up, without editing, as I went along. Perhaps this year I will wait until the very end to type it all up. We will see.

The other is something that some of my writer friends have marveled at my ability to do, and that's watching television and listening to music with words. When I was in college and I didn't have a television, I listened to a lot of music and downloaded tons of it from the internet (shhhh, don't tell anyone!). Stuart Davis, various 80s music, Duncan Sheik, ABBA--it's all in there somewhere in my college plays. Now, it's the music of Jonathan Coulton, They Might be Giants, Paul and Storm, but added to the soundtrack is television. Project Runway, Law and Order, The Simpsons, Futurama, and Family Guy are all involved.

I have to have some kind of noise going on because I have this part of my brain that doesn't want to do anything but freak out and get distracted by shiny things. I call it my monkey brain--because it simply goes ape. So without some kind of noise, and some kind of noise that I am familiar with and I don't have to pay that close of attention to--I'm good to go.

So I got my giant basket of pens, a stack of notebooks, and my family guy and futurama DVDs. I am armed with my weapons for NaPlWriMo.

Are you?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Countdown: 9 Days--some thoughts on ideas

So it's getting down to the single digit numbers before November 1, and as I was walking through the humid rainy Southern fall weather to my car after work a bit ago, I was trying to think of where the idea for 'In the Bunker', the play I'm going to write this year, came from. Sometimes, if I just think about it long enough, I can remember where the idea came from, but this time, I can't.

I can tell you where the inspiration to write a play about the Holocaust came from. There was a Polish-Jewish pediatrician, Janusz Korczak, who had an amazingly and achingly human story that was just begging to be told in these times ( for those interested). He had about 200 children in his orphanage's care during the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and eventually they were liquidated to Treblinka, where they died (at least we think they died--no one knows for sure, but no one saw or heard from them again after they were liquidated). Without going into great detail, Janusz was an incredibly loving, incredibly flawed, incredibly beautiful person, and his has left behind a legacy of learning about children and how they grow that is still extremely important, if not more so today. But I digress.

I wanted to write a play about him since I was introduced to him in Winter 2000, when I took a class called 'The History of the Holocaust', and he has stayed with me for going on a decade now.

So how does that relate to the Goebbels children? It was interesting, because I was thinking about these children, who grew up as the offspring of one of the biggest monsters the world has known, with their godfather being probably the most evil man who has ever existed. But they were children.

Something about them tugged at my heart. I looked beyond where they came from, who their parents and godfather were, and realized Hedda, my heroine, could very well have been me. I grew up with parents who were much older, who both had heath problems, and with a father who was an alcoholic who drank himself to sleep in his chair every night, and eventually to death. As a child, I thought this was normal, until I met the parents of my friends. I realized it was far from normal.

But these children, this life would be normal for them. They were very sheltered and had no base for what to really measure their reality against. So what was it like for them in the last 10 days of their lives? What did Hedda do? What did her siblings do? We know from history some details, but the exact details are lost to time.

What this long drawn out ramble is about is your idea for your play. If you're still looking for an idea, you can look to history, and see what lessons we need to know, and translate them through your heart and mind into something new. You can look to your own personal history, or the history of anything you're passionate about. If you love it, if it burns for you, let it set your world on fire.

Maybe you have a little something in mind, maybe, like me, you have something heavy on your heart, burning there, wishing to be put on paper. There's no time like, oh, 9 days from now, to do it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Countdown: 10 days until November 1 or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Tired

Yeah, it's ten days BEFORE NaPlWriMo, and I'm already tired.

Today I ended up working a 12 hour day and I will work 3 more eight hour shifts before I am off on Sunday. I have homework, writing, crocheting of a baby blanket for Ruby due in November (not my child, because REALLY, all that would be even more insane), my fiance's job search, and my duties here And a 55 hour work week. I already said that. I'm tired.

Anyway, apologies for the rambling. The point is to not have a contest about who has more to do (like I did with some of my co-workers today), or make people feel bad for doing or not doing things, or to scare anyone off. The point is, I have grown to LOVE my life busy like this.

Ever since I started at a community college in 1996 until I graduated from the University of Iowa in 2005, through working a full time job and working at Comedy Sportz Quad Cities, all while being an improv newbie, through being cast in a play and working the current full time job, up until just about a couple weeks ago, I've been insanely busy. It seems I'm not happy unless I have about 85 things I love to do at a time.

Plus, being tired weirdly makes me feel like I'm alive.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and The Long Quiet Highway, among others, says in The Long Quiet Highway:

"Recently I dorve alone from Minneapolis to New Mexico in late December, the darkest time of the year. I had to cross the souther border of Minnesota, drive straight through Iowa, across Kansas, into Oklahoma and Texas...The half moon and one evening star were directly in front of me. A train roared by on my right. The moment was over and I was tired, puling into a Best Western at ten P.M. in the town of Liberty on the Oklahoma border. What I wanted was to love all of this: my weariness, the wind lifting as I got out of the car at the Texaco....Every moment is enormous, and it is all we have...There is not a short cut from Minneapolis to New Mexico. My car had to cover every mile. We learn with every cell and with time, care, pain, and love....We all must go down that highway. Our life is the path of learning, to wake up before we die... (xii-xiii)."

Tired reminds me that I'm alive, that everything I'm doing, every moment is all I have. And being tired from doing things I love--that's the best.

So don't be afraid of being tired in November, even with a pile a mile high of everything you have in your life, plus writing a play. It will be worth it. I promise.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

NaPlWriMo 2009 11 days left!

We're getting close to single digits of days left!

To commemorate this, I want to tell you a little about something called Monomyth, The Hero's Journey. This is a pattern common to many stories from around the world. Joseph Campbell explores it in his book, 'The Hero With a Thousand Faces'. There's seventeen stages to this. I'm not going to get into all of them in this post (this isn't school for God's sake!), but I would like to discuss the Call to the Journey, the first step in the journey.

"The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown." (Wikipedia)

This is where we are all at, Rhinos. We heard the call to write an at least 75 page play in November. Right now, we're dealing with the 'mundane'--working, going to school, taking care of our families, dealing with our worldly obligations. I put 'mundane' in quotes, because I don't want to lessen the importance of these obligations--we all need to eat, we all need to get our educations, take care of scraped knees and hungry pets. These things are important. But it's also important that if you are hearing the call to writing, that you listen to it.

This call is to head off in the unknown--but it might not be completely unknown. We might actually have an idea of where the play we want to write is going to go--I personally have a real life historical structure for the beginning, middle and end. We might have characters in mind, we might have even seen the entire play in the fog of dreams or in the clarity of our mind's eye, all set out on the stage, waiting to go. Some of us might have a title or maybe a vague idea. Whatever we have, it's still the unknown.

I don't know if any of you deal with this, but I have a serious issue with dealing with the unknown in reality. It's surprising I up and moved to Arkansas two years ago--this is NOT something I would ordinarily do. But I had the call--actually several calls--but the overwhelming one was one of change in my life. So I did it. I went off into the unknown. I fell down a lot, had a lot of bumps in the road, had to have my meds adjusted, but there's more good than bad to my story, my own journey, which started with the call to the journey.

So I urge you today, think about the call to the journey of NaPlWriMo. Think about what you want to accomplish--of who and what you want to write about. Whatever you do, don't ignore the call to the journey.

It is life-altering.

Happy 11 days left, Rhinos!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


With only 17 days left before NaPlWriMo, I don't want to start anything new, but I still want to work on things to polish and submit. I had been thinking about this play for a bit the other day, and decided to pull it out, dust it off, and see how it's going.


This play was first drafted in 2006. I had been in the aftermath of a massive break-up and I had been on the rebound with a fella I thought was pretty great, even though there were ten million red flags abounding in that relationship that ignored. The inspiration of the play came from the issues surrounding meeting this guy's family. I had met his mom, who happened to be blind, so he doted on her quite a bit. His father was another story. If I'm remembering correctly, his parents are divorced and his father had a new wife. It was like pulling teeth to try and meet his Dad. Finally, he relented and as I recall, that evening with his father and his new wife was pretty terrible. The process of trying to meet his Dad inspired the play.

What if his father was really dead? (This was before I knew he was alive, kicking, and kind of a douche). What if my father and his father were conspiring in Heaven to get this guy and I together?

That's where the play came from.

The play involves a lot of supernatural aspects and a lot of playing around with the Christian pantheon. I had thought about my Latin classes back in college and about how the Romans and Greeks treated their gods. They ascribed them very human like tendencies--having affairs, getting angry and changing people in animals as a punishment, envy, etc. It was very fascinating. I wondered what would happen if I took God and St. Peter and Satan and gave them all human like tendancies, the good and the bad. And the supernatural aspects of the play came out. As I have God and Satan playing games and gambling, I was brought back to the story of Lot, which was God and Satan in the Old Testament basically doing the same thing they are doing in my play. Fascinating.

I don't want people to think I am doing this because I don't really ascribe to being a Christian per se. I don't want people to think I'm doing this to make fun of Christianity or anything like that, but I know that's always a possibility, and I hope that people can see past that and see the funny aspects of the play.

So I went back and re-read the play, writing down the settings and the characters and all that good stuff so I can work on a summary and character list for eventually submitting the play. And the play is actually in pretty good shape. I have a couple of things I need to fix and look at, but for the most part, it's ready for people to read.

This play was a thorn in my side for three going on four years. I liked the play, I loved the characters and I wanted it to work, but for some reason, like with every play I work with that has a supernatural aspect, I have a hard time dealing with that aspect. Part of having supernatural and dead characters makes my life easier as a writer. No one knows for certain, regardless of spiritual proclivity, what happens with the afterlife or with the supernatural. But with this freedom comes some problems of creating rules for a world and sticking to them. In reality, we have to, for the most part, stick to the rules of gravity. If we break them, there's a reason, but they are rules that we all know and follow. But if you create a world and rules, and then break them, you run the risk of losing and angering readers and viewers (hence my hatred of 'The Lovely Bones').

The point is, this play is getting close to a final first draft--almost four years later. It's inspiring and good to see the process I've gone through, because the process really is the important part--not the destination.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Comix 101

Last night, I had the extreme honor of seeing Art Spiegelman speak at Hendrix. For those who aren't familiar with his work, he wrote and drew Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers. He makes these notable little books called graphic novels, which is not a phrase he uses. He would just say that he draws comic books.

That man can TALK. He talked for 2 hours and would have kept going if he had been allowed to. It was pretty fascinating, to learn the history of comics and to learn how to read one. The talk was pretty dense, it was a lot of information thrown at the audience, but it was a fun and fascinating talk. How often can you say that you saw a speaker call an audience a bunch of anti-Semites, and have the audience crack up at it? Of course, there's context, but he really makes you think about a lot of things: about race, anti-semitism, comics and where they fall in the spectrum of art, if they are art, sex, you name it. He's a pretty fascinating man. Check these out of you are interested in his work, as well you should be. Maus is beautiful. I haven't read In the Shadow of No Towers but I might change that in the future.

Okay, so what does this have to do with playwriting? As I was listening to him speak and watched him pick apart comic pages and as he talked about the architecture involved in comics, I realized, I had SO much to learn from them! Part of writing a play does involve thinking about the visuals of the work and because comics blend words and images, I would argue that reading comics can inform writing plays incredibly. There was something that rang so true about the building of a strip and how much work went into them that I could relate to--I could call Mr. Spiegelman a comic-wright, but that would sound strange. But it makes sense--there is a lot of building involved, a similar construct. It is helpful to think of writing a play and creating a comic as being a similar kind of building--a long long long lost cousin.

Another thing that drew me to his work is the fact that the play I'm working on for National Playwriting Month (, or rather, WILL be working on, is about the Holocaust, 'In the Bunker'. I kept wanting to ask him a question about constructing the work, about the play and how it's not the kind of play I would normally write, or maybe I'm just saying that because I know that Hitler will be portrayed in this play, and I don't want to look like a sympathizer, but how does one construct something and not look like an asshole? I couldn't figure out how to vocalize this question because there's more to it than not wanting to be an asshole, and I think that some of it comes from my goy background, and how does a goy write about another group of goys, but this particular group of goys like killing Jews? See? It's still not making sense. It's just a struggle I've had with 'In the Bunker', and I suspect he would tell me to not worry about it and let the story be the story. Probably after he called me an anti-Semite in jest of course.