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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How to Write a Play or How to Enjoy Repeatedly Banging Your Head Against the Wall, Lesson 7: Warding off Writer's Block an Embracing and Imperfect Medium

Hello.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  It's Tuesday today (at least for another twenty minutes or so), which means it is time for another lesson in playwriting.  This being said, this is also a lesson for anyone who writes anything.

As a playwright and teacher of young playwrights, there is one word that separates successful playwrights from unsuccessful playwrights.  Ready for it?


Yes, it is true that not every person who completes writing a play (or a story or a novel, etc.) finds widespread success.  On the other hand, a person who never completes a piece has zero chance of finding success.  So there you have it.  The number one goal when starting a piece of writing should be to complete a draft.  This is the big goal in my intro to playwriting class.  Finish.

Finish, finish, finish.

I tell my students that theater, and, hell, all of writing is imperfect, especially a first draft.  That's what makes theater and writing exciting and alive.  Perfection doesn't really exist in the arts, and if it did, it would probably be boring. 

I also tell them this:  the only way to rewrite and rework a first draft they are disappointed with is to HAVE a first draft you are disappointed with.

My first semester as a playwriting student when I was in college was a pretty banner semester.  I wrote a ten-minute play that got a lot of attention, and followed it with a one-act play of about twenty-five minutes, and then followed that by a one-act play of about 55 minutes in duration.  I was a completion machine.  

My second semester, I was moved right from Beginning Playwriting to Advanced Playwriting.  Suddenly, the criticisms in the workshop setting were harsher.  Suddely, I didn't feel like a wunderkind anymore.  Suddenly, I started writing 15 pages of a project and then abandoning it, and then 10 pages, and then 5 pages... you get the idea. 

Even after graduation, for a good time in my twenties, I would begin a piece and then set it aside, worried that it was never going to look or feel like what it did in my head. 

I have a message for all young (and even not-so-young) writers who are reading this: 
I know this from experience.  From lots of finished plays that I've racked up over the last couple years.  That doesn't mean it won't be close, or, sometimes even BETTER than what is in your head.  It happens.  But if writing were simply a matter of having the ability to precisely transcribe the images from your head perfectly, then it wouldn't be much of an artform, would it?  It would be... well, robotic.  Stale.

I know it is frustrating when things are not working out.  I know that the big old SELF-CRITICAL voices can be strangling.   I take comfort in a quote by William Faulkner, who was pretty damn smart:  "Write.  If it's good, you'll know it, if it isn't, throw it out the window."  You want to abandon a piece once it is finished, then go for it.  Chances are, you won't, not if you've invested the time in creating the first draft.  And that first draft may "utterly suck" (to use a term one of my stuents and, heck, probably I have used), but that's why the Universe invented subsequent drafts.

One should approach playwriting as a serious endeavor, sure, but one should also remember that no one is going to die if scene five craps out and needs a complete overhaul.  Be happy you have a scene five that can be fixed!  At least you don't need a liver transplant, right?

A former writing and literature professor of mine from Bennington, a talented writer named Roland Merullo, has written a book called Demons of the Blank Page where he talks about some of the psychological elements that can keep people from writing or writing at their best.  He has a chapter devoted to "the need to be perfect", a close relation to writer's block, and talks about it much more eloquently than I do here.  I am in no way affiliated with the book other than being a fan, and am receiving no money for mentioning it, but I'm going to offer a link for you here if you're interested:

For me, in my own life, I had to learn the hard way.  You can't be a writer if you don't finish.  Simple as that.  You need the steam to move forward. 

Here are some tips:

1.  If you need to jump around in the play, do it.  There may be some plot point or bit of dialogue you know will have to happen, but you just don't know how to do it yet.  Move forward.  Fill in the blanks later.  There is no law that says you have to write your play in order. 

2.  The reason writers can get a lot of work done in college is because they have deadlines.  The reason Hollywood Screenwriters can crank out pages is because they have deadlines.  /Believe it or not, deadlines are great things for creativity.  They raise the stakes, force you to tell the self-critical voice to give it a damn rest, you have work that's due.  Now, you may not have school or business deadlines, so I recommend setting some other kind of deadline for yourself  (I think this is why NaNoWriMo is so popular).  Use a tactic like giving your friend something precious of yours and instructing them not to give it back unless you have a first draft in your hands by such and such a date.  Or, if you're good at challenging yourself, you may not have to involve other people, but give it some sense of stakes. 

3.  Here's a tip from Roland's Book:  Mock your self-critical voice.  Seriously.  I've tried it.  It's kind of fun.  Speak to your self-criticism sarcastically, watch it get peeved and sulk away. 

4.  This is one of Roland's tips, too, but it was and is also one of mine, before I read the book.  I tend to have good luck when I write quickly.  Writing fast helps me to keep the self-doubt and criticism away.  There's always room for the self-criticism (which isn't actually a bad thing--- in fact, it's a good thing when you have a draft done) later.  I tend to deflate myself if I don't get the draft out as fast as I can, and when I deflate myself, I deflate the project.  Enthusiasm is positive.  Write fast, when it still feels fresh, like a Honeymoon period. 

Again, these are all just suggestions.  Everyone has their own method.  And any method that leads to completion for you is a good method.

And if it doesn't?  Well, all I can say is try something another way to get to the finish line or maybe rethink your goals of being a writer.

Thanks for checking out my blog.  Until next time, imperfection can be a good thing, and theater is a sport.

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