by Diane Grant
What I did was go back to a book on playwriting written called How Not To Write A Play by Walter Kerr, who was a playwright in the 40’s and 50’s, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a critic for the New York Herald Tribune and the Sunday New York Times.
His mantra is, “Avoid generalities. Be specific.”
The beginning of the work arises from something specific, from seeing something or hearing or remembering something concrete that starts your imagination working.
It can be just a glimpse of someone – an old acquaintance laughing, a man crying in a corner, two women jogging, one talking on the phone. It could be a piece of landscape – that enormous, bright supermoon in November, for example. It could be a snatch of dialogue.
My friend, Madeleine, collects things she’s heard on the street and publishes the results every year during the holidays. She just loves to listen. I love to listen, too and I really recommend carrying around a recorder or a notebook so that you can catch something you see or hear that astounds or delights or amuses or just interests you.
Just recently, I looked at my notebook and found two men walking down the street arguing and the one said, “Of course, your Dad thinks Jesus is magic.” Another day, I heard a woman shouting into her phone, “Well, the drugs aren’t working so I’m not going to pay for them.” I heard a man screaming at his wife, “This is my time. Don’t you understand? This is for me! My time!”
My husband and I were at lunch not long ago and heard a full bearded man talking to someone in a big wide brimmed black hat about how he could get her a radio show with an international following because he knew the King of Jordan’s sister. All he needed was some start up money. The person in the hat never spoke, we never saw the face, just the hat.
Where could that lead me?, I thought. Who was the person in the black brimmed hat? Was she old or young? Maybe she was very beautiful. Was she crying? Was she smiling? Was she listening? Maybe the person in the hat wasn’t a woman!
I could do a little research perhaps. (I’m a great fan of Wikipedia.) Does the King of Jordan have a sister? Aha. He has six and he once had a bit part on Star Trek. King Abdullah’s Sisters.
Walter Kerr’s advice is to let all the pieces start to come together and don’t yet criticize. Keep your eyes and ears open and see where they take you. Put down details. One phrase may lead to another, one association to another, something will jog your memory which will connect to something else, and gradually you will have accumulated material to work with. You will put it all together to tell a story.
Maybe the situation would start me off. Maybe, King Abdullah’s Sisters has nothing to do with the King Of Jordan. Other characters might appear, a waiter who knows that the bearded man has run a tab that has to be paid, or a street musician who serenades them, or a woman who says, “Marguerite! At last!”
I don’t want to start with a theme. I can never enter those contests that ask you to write a ten minute play that has a theme to follow – Holey Moley, Curves Ahead, Time Forgot, etc. My brain freezes.
However, recently, I forgot that and thought I could write a play about the friendship between Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson. (And that’s probably when my writer’s block started).
In the afternoon of October 12, 1952, Paul Robeson visited Einstein at his home on Mercer Street in Princeton and they talked for six hours. Einstein was not well and very discouraged and it’s said that he was re-energized by that visit.
How inspirational, I thought. I kept seeing the last moments of the play with Einstein at the piano and Robeson singing.
I read all I could about them and their mutual activism. And the play just sat there. Dead.
I was trying to write about two historical figures, two geniuses I had nothing in common with, had never met, and never would meet – I, a white woman with no mathematical ability or scientific ability like Einstein’s, who speaks only one language, not twenty, like Paul Robeson. (I do sing.)
But the problem wasn’t that I was trying to write about historical figures. I was starting not with specifics but a theme, a generality. I was going to write about altruism and the efforts of two men to help change the world.
And it didn’t work. Back to the book!