A few weeks ago, I put some things on my “to do” list that I want to finish or start before the new year and took a look around at the space I am in (physical, mental, and creative). I have been here before at this crossroad but didn’t stay long enough to make tracks. This time I am already knee deep in the snow, climbing for the sake of sanity.
I see story in everything. It could be called a haunting but it’s what I live for. Unexpectantly, a coworker and I had a wonderful conversation about writing and how most everyone has at least one story in them. We talked about oral storytelling and the way it becomes theatrical if done right. ALAP (Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights) has an event called “In Our Own Voices” where the playwright must be the reader or one of the readers in 5 minutes of their work. I have participated twice and am always rejuvenated to the nth degree afterwards. This coworker is not a writer per se but stories are starting to peek out at him. I encouraged him to write them down.
I have work to do as well.
I have been torn between creating new work or tweaking old work but like reading my work aloud, creating new worlds and characters on the page is being reborn every time; it is flying high – up to meet the sun.
The end of this year finds me writing and reading and exploring new ways to hear my words out loud. How about you?
When I was in France in September for an impromptu trip, I had about two days to spend in Paris. I’d never been there before, I didn’t speak the language, I had a lot of work I knew I’d be flying home to. I was happy and grateful but stressed.
But there was one thing that I felt drawn to, the thing that I couldn’t leave Paris without doing: visiting the grave of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
It felt like a pilgrimage. I’m not a religious person. I probably couldn’t truly articulate what I believe. Energies, maybe. Ghosts. I don’t know. I’m not even a hard-core Oscar Wilde fan. But I needed to go there.
I didn’t bring the right shoes for the amount of walking I’d been doing all week. My feet and legs ached. I got turned around a dozen times just finding the entrance of the cemetery. Once inside, I wandered for a long time, searching for the exact location of the grave. Père Lachaise is well organized but its long winding paths can play tricks on you. I could feel every cobble stone under my shoes. It was cold and I was hungry and I felt like I’d never find him.
Obviously people make this trek all the time. I am not unique. Roses and gifts littered his grave. Lipstick marks covered the protective glass installed around the huge grave stone to combat graffiti from adoring fans. Tourists from England and Sweden and Germany paraded by in the half hour or so I spent there, sitting on the curb across the path from the grave. I felt almost embarrassed that I didn’t have a flower to offer. He probably hated that.
Instead, I sat there and asked him questions.
How did you do it? How did you have the confidence?
I thought about the tragic way his life was cut short. And felt silly for asking him anything, since anything I had experienced is nothing compared to his life. But still, I admitted to him, that while I don’t deserve it, I’d sure like this advice.
Can I do this? This writer thing?
I feel silly saying I did this. But it was a pilgrimage to connect to something deeper, some sort of literary history, to figure out if I’m crazy for doing what I’m doing, for wanting what I think I want.
I think it is important to find stillness and ask these questions. To a god, to a literary giant, to someone you’ve lost, to yourself. You’ll get an answer if you ask the question. It may not come in the form of words and a life plan, but in the form of a warmness, a feeling in the pit of your stomach, a sudden lightness in your breathe, in your step.
I made my way out of the cemetery, but it wasn’t easy. I was pretty convinced the ghosts wanted to try to keep me there, confusing me, sending me down more painful cobblestone paths to drain me. But then I found the opening.
I spent the rest of the night wandering more streets, eating cheese, reading, and drinking hot chocolate. And felt like myself. And at peace with that feeling.
We’re getting close to the new year. I’m watching friends and family achieve things, get married, have babies, buy houses. Lovely choices and happiness in so many forms. Seeing others’ choice can sometimes make you question your own. So make your own pilgrimage. Maybe not to Oscar Wilde’s grave (if you do, bring shoes that can deal with those cobblestones) but to a place with the energy that will help you focus and ask that question that’s burning in your mind.
I think it has finally happened. I think I have writer’s block.
When I started writing, I was taking classes to learn how to write, the different genres and structures. I was also reading books and articles about writing and from the beginning I read how there was no such thing as writer’s block. I always thought about writer’s block in terms of not being able to continue to write. You know, you’re half way through your story and you don’t know what happens next.
But since I finished my last play, I have written bits and pieces of ideas and thoughts, but I never thought of what I was going to write next. It usually just came to me and I sat down and wrote about it. I would write and re-write the same thing, different ways, working the story out. But right now, I’m at a loss. I finished the story, had my characters yell and scream the things people don’t dare to say out loud. I had found the perfect setting for this to happen and made the cast small enough to include all the backstory I had dreamt up. And now. Nothing. I can’t even see the next thing. Instead of writing a play, I sit trying to finish a collection of essays about the same subject, and am rehashing the same stories in different settings, trying to get a different audience to understand.
Right now I can’t imagine another play, another story I want to write. When I was writing, I was reading different blogs and books about the subject. Different viewpoints, trying to understand the story from all sides. Listening to podcasts and interviews, talking ad-nauseum with friends about their thoughts on the subject. But nothing. I can’t imagine that I am done with the subject. It still keeps me up at night, or wakes me early in the morning, usually at 3 am. But why can’t I write anything more about it? Why can’t I see it anymore and better yet, is this writer’s block?
In the articles I had read about, they said there was no such thing. It’s a figment of your imagination, you’re just not working hard enough. Even trying to write this on this blog this week has been a pain staking task. Racking my brain. What do I say? How do I say it? Who will read it? Does it matter?
But wait. A glimmer of hope. I started this post on Monday. It’s now Sunday night, my last day to post and there is a story brewing. While getting lost in distraction and procrastination this week, I found a new book to read and a different angle on my story. Actually a whole new play. Now starts the ruminating.
I would love to hear your thoughts on writer’s block, because I’m sure it is not done with me.
The things that make us who we are and the fodder that fills our pens can be some very scary stuff.
‘Succinctly’, that is not a word that describes how trauma behaves in the lives of the traumatized. It is not a brief episode; it will not go away momentarily. Trauma lingers for a lifetime informing the world of those affected by it and it is not neat – it leaves dregs all over the place.
I like to write about secrets, this has been mine. Not that it unknown just not something I shared openly, outside of a story or a poem.
Recently I shared that I suffer from PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). Decades after the traumatic events that caused it, I said it out loud in a full sentence – “I suffer from PTSD.” One person asked me, what caused that? My next words were, “I am a rape survivor – a several*-time rape survivor.” I have no idea why after 40 years (from the first event) that I suddenly could say that PTSD is a factor in my life. It is a breakthrough for me and a big one. Dealing with trauma is a 24/7, 365/day affair. One cannot put a band-aid on it, take two aspirins and call it life.
It is never that simple. I came into puberty fighting off hands…
The first 5 years after the rapes, I suffered horrific flashbacks every day. I would sleep run… I found myself on a few occasions in the middle of the road in front of my father’s house, dashing toward the busy street lights. Mid-stride I would stop in the pitch black, not knowing why I was running, what I was running to, and how I got out of the house. I really had to pray about that. I prayed that God would wake me up and He did, I started waking up at the door, then in the room and then the running stopped altogether. Flashbacks are few and far between because I know to try hard to veer away from triggers.
Flashbacks show up in my work. I was once told that writers should not use flashbacks. I am unable to follow that rule. Writers tend to write what they know.
It is a journey – a long one. There is a book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold S. Kushner, that I read, after the dung hit the fan, that kept me from dwelling in the land of, “Why me?” This book has some good points in it. Another book, “The Body Keeps the Score (Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma)” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., that I have read recently, several times, has been instrumental in me getting to the point of being able to claim the monster. In the section titled “Breaking the Silence,” Van Der Kolk says, “If you’ve been hurt, you need to acknowledge and name what happened to you… The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
I am striving for a fierceness in my work and that takes courage to do also. So, what now? Same as always, I continue to press toward the mark…because I refuse to stop…
I am writing my world whole…
To others on this or similar journeys toward wholeness…Blessings…
This is may be a trick. I’ve been tricking myself all summer long into thinking I had to accomplish a certain amount of writing work in order to call this arbitrary three months a success.
I usually don’t put so much pressure on summer specifically (on myself, yes, all the time) but this is the first summer I’ve had “off” since undergrad. This is the summer between my first and last year of grad school – a summer where my freelance work, my writing life, and my general mental health was all up in the air. So my list of projects to “finish” grew and grew.
What does this have to do with endings?
As I playwright, I feel like I’ve generally got a knack for endings and for striking images at the beginning. It’s, of course, the middle part that gets muddy.
I love writing endings. I usually know exactly where I want things to go, or at least the emotional weight or the image that a play needs to land on. It might end up shifting around, but when I start something, that ending is already a glimmering oracle on the horizon.
So this is why my summer got messed up. I had a beautiful ending planned: finish this play, rewrite that one, write that screenplay, finish that novel, write this short screenplay, finish the short story collection…I have ALL summer, so what’s wrong with that ending?
The problem is really that it is a false ending. That summer and your writing life doesn’t follow a three act structure and sometimes you have to build self-care time into things (which is not interesting to watch) and you have to put in the hard work and the starts and stops and frustrations. You have to really factor in how much TIME all this stuff takes. None of which is fodder for dramatic entertainment. But all of which is life.
My summer started when the production of my play Wood Boy Dog Fish ended on June 24.
Then I slept for a couple weeks. I felt lost. The constant panic in my chest had gone and it had been replaced with dread.
Then I went to the Sewanee Conference in Tennessee for two weeks as a Playwright Fellow. Met some amazing people I hope will continue to be friends throughout our careers. Then I drove around for five days by myself and experienced the weirdness of Tennessee.
Panicked that I hadn’t finished my long list of writing.
And now, as I’m writing this, I am waiting at LAX to fly to France – surprise! Not something I had planned on. A twist ending. A short puppet play of mine is a finalist for the UNIMA call for young writers, and they invited the finalists to come to Charleville-Mézières, France for a paper theatre workshop, a reading, and the award ceremony. So I said…sure. Let’s go.
Because sometimes twists just show themselves and you end up following that path you didn’t see until it was right there.
When I fly back on September 25, my second year of grad school will start two days later and my summer will officially be over. This summer “play” (re:my life) began in bed sleeping off the hangover of the past 9 months, and staring at fire flies in southern humidity. It will end in Paris. It doesn’t actually make any sense. This play would be ripped apart in workshop.
But its a false ending. Because nothing is over. The summer is just three months. And things happen in the time they happen, and when you force a something (a play, a life) to work in a way it is just not capable of working, you’ll get stuck, staring at the page. And crying. And eating too much cheese.
I intend to eat quite a bit of cheese in France.
And as far as endings go, even false ones – that’s not too bad.
Alyson Mead interviews playwright Inda Craig-Galván about questionable mothers, Carrie as a role model, and a better Scott Baio. The Playwrights’ Arena premiere of I Go Somewhere Else plays at the Atwater Village Theater through September 17th.
First off, let me start by apologizing if you have “that” song stuck in your head. But it is something I have been thinking about lately. Letting go and just how you do it. After having some deep thoughts about what to write about next, I find old starts to plays that I never got around to finishing. Be it from losing interest in the subject, or getting lost down the rabbit hole of research, these tiny gems of writing deserve to see the light of day. Or do they?
When I started them, I was passionate about the story and felt I needed to tell it. But as interest waned, so did the story. I did not love it as much anymore, so I stopped writing. At times I thought I should just push through the pain and agony I felt of writing, but other times I would think why work on something you don’t love. And if the latter is the case, will I fall in love with it again?
As I sit here sorting through my note cards of brilliance (as I like to call them) I feel the sparks of love that were once there. But will the spark turn into a forest fire, or just fizzle out in a light breeze?
The next thoughts that seep into my brain are: “Well, this story is kinda current in the news right now; maybe I should finish this piece”. Again is that a good enough reason to look into? There is no burning desire to work on it; it’s just “yeah, it’s there”. But I also don’t have anything burning a hole in my notebook that I must write about. (Sidebar: what’s with all this burning?)
Why do I even worry about this? Why am I now expending so much energy on this topic?
I am thinking about this, not only for my writing, but other aspects of my life as I take a look at what I have done thus far this year and how I’m stacking up with my to-do list. Looking at new job possibilities and the freelance lifestyle that I currently have going on. When is enough enough? When do you shut down these passion projects that were once integral parts of your life, as expiration dates creep up, you start evaluating whether you want to go on or not.
So I ask you, when is it good to “Let it Go” and when do you push through for writings sake?
I had forgotten the exhilarating feeling of enjoyment of writing. I have been working in a supervisory roll, meaning I sit back and wait for something to happen, and most days I literally just sat there. I could bring other work if I wanted, but I chose to sit there, glancing occasionally at my phone and social media, but that got boring after a while. This of course was after clearing out my podcast backlog. Who knew it was that easy to go through 100+ episodes of just one. I had to start looking for other things I was interested in. I cannot tell you what a motivator this was to me and it made overseeing the job not so quiet. I could sit there with my phone on speaker or just one ear bud in, and take notes of the interesting points of view from that day’s topic. It also helped my writing. When I write, I try to work out all angles. I play my own devil’s advocate. I should look at it as giving my characters different points of view and more depth, but for me it was to try and hit both sides of the argument, because even though I might share only point of view, I tried to construct how my argument would happen. I never thought of this as dialogue, I just wrote it out, but realistically, that what it is. Giving my characters depth and being able to present current issues in a well rounded point of view.
After a few days of procrastinating and working things out in my head, I finally narrowed down what I wanted to say. I also only had 2 days until the submission deadline. What made it easier for me was to write out the rant(s) that my character needed to say. After listening to the variety of podcasts though, the rants were all over the map. When I was finally sitting down writing out the scene, all the things I wanted to say were distilled and my protagonist found her voice.
Next problem, was figuring out how I wanted it to end. I finished it and submitted it with a whole day left to spare. It was like a weight had been lifted and I wondered why it had taken me so long to write this 10 minute play, but it felt so good! The only drawback now, what’s next?
How do you feel when you’ve finished that first draft?