When it comes to playwriting, I’m pretty confident. I’m pretty good at character and dialogue, though my plotting could use a lot of work. And I know the basics about how to format a draft that is acceptable for submission.
But I’ve learned a hard lesson of late: I don’t remember a thing from 5th grade grammar class.
Apparently it didn’t matter in my career as playwright and radio journalist. Nobody really cares where you put your commas. There are no quotation marks. You never have to worry about tense in radio reporting: live spots are always in present tense; radio features are told in past tense. Plays on the other hand always take place in the “now” – even when we’re having onstage flashbacks to past events.
Why this trip down grammatical worry lane? I have my first “prose” book coming out in late February and correcting the galleys has made me realize that as a writer, I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing.
The book is a middle grade novel, “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.” It’s the tale of the ten year old daughter of a congressman who solves the mystery of the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill to save her family from “cat”astrophe.
The publisher, Black Rose Writing, is a small indie house out of Texas that pretty much requires you to be your own editor. That means it’s my job to identify all the grammar mistakes. And there are many.
I never realized what a messy writer I am – throwing dashes and commas into the same sentences and (what do you call these things that I usually use as smiley faces in texts?) I had to look up whether to capitalize the first word in a quote and whether the period goes before or after the quotation mark. I’m pretty good with apostrophes, but what about phrases like “kids book?”
I slip back and forth through tenses without considering the poor reader. Even re-reading this blog post is sending shudders through my heart.
I have half a dozen writing manuals on my desk. And I use a “bible” – a text by a writer that I admire. I flip through the pages to see how she solved a particular grammar issue.
I’m lucky to be married to a guy who has even more writing books on his shelves than I have on mine. (I was going to write “than I do” but was unsure of the grammatical correctness…) I can walk down the hall to query him about various rules. But even he was stumped from time to time.
It’s enough to make you want to give up writing.
On the other hand, how many times are we given the opportunity to learn something new? Something hard. Something useful.
I like the idea of switching back and forth between writing for the stage and writing books for kids. I want to feel as confident about the latter as I do (sometimes) about the former. I want to be a writer!
But I am still looking for the perfect grammatical writing book. Any suggestions?
I imagine that a lot of you know already about Julia Cameron’s wonderful book – TheArtist’s Way: a spiritual path to higher creativity. I found it in the library. I don’t remember when that was or why I saw it but it saved me.
I’ve been so discouraged and blocked that I didn’t think I’d write again.
My play, The Last Of The Daytons, which actually won a prize in 2017 – the SantaBarbara Playfest – is dear to my heart and relevant to today and I can’t find a theater to produce it. I know I’m far from alone and have been writing a long time but for some reason, the lack of a home for this particular piece stopped me in my tracks. (There’s only a finite number of places to submit.)
“What is the point?” lurked under everything I started. And I didn’t continue. I didn’t write in my diary or talk into my recorder.
I did read the book.
The Artist’s Way is decades old and still an international bestseller. There are a lot of blocked artists out there! It takes you through a twelve week program designed to help you unblock and start writing freely again.
Ms. Cameron believes that creativity has a spiritual foundation and that “the bedrock tool of a creative recovery” is an exercise called Morning Pages: three pages of longhand writing about absolutely anything. Lined pages are perfect. Write them first thing in the morning, and don’t show them to anyone. They can be about anything and there is no wrong way to do them but it takes practice. Sometimes I get busy (like now) and don’t write until later but when I don’t sit down and race across the page, I miss it and feel as if I’m cheating myself.
You’re not supposed to look at those pages until some time has passed. I began on August the 13th and will read them on October the 13th. Maybe I’ll find out something I didn’t know about how I approach things, maybe there will be a clue as to how to proceed. Maybe the fear and anxiety about starting something new will disappear or at least lessen.
Since I started writing them, I’ve already begun a new play, well, I’ve a setting and four people, maybe also a mysterious lady in a plumed hat, maybe, maybe. But it’s a start.
She also suggests that you make an “artist’s date” with yourself once a week. Do something, go somewhere, for yourself, by yourself, something not related to domestic chores or something for work, something that’s out of the ordinary daily routine, something out of the neighborhood.
See how it feels.
I’m sure the pleasure of seeing or doing something new would be beneficial and fun but I’ve found this the most difficult. I think that underneath that anxiety about taking that time off is a feeling of not being allowed. It wouldn’t be productive after all, would it?
(I did buy myself an ice cream cone a couple of weeks ago but don’t know if that counts.)
I think I can, I think I can.
The book gives you exercises after every week and I know I can use them so I’ll go back to the library and take it out again. And I’ll go now and write those Morning Pages!
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…
I needed a lifeline and a buoy to stay afloat and to anchor myself to another reality of some sort.
The therapist recalled that I stood out from the crowd because he saw that I was in a deep trance. I wondered perhaps if my consistent meditation practice is the reason for this ability to lapse into a different mode. I booked a private session to address the weight that I had been unable to unload without professional help. I was tailspinning into a depression over the loss of my husband Bruno Herve Commereuc in a motorcycle accident this past January. So we begin.
I am lying down comfortably with my eyes closed and listening attentively. My body is deeply relaxed. He suggests that I relinquish my analytical left brain and allow my superconscious to take care of everything. The superconscious knows everything – more than the left-brain modality which sorts, judges and focuses only on what’s at hand, while the right brain has the detailed roadmap to everything the subconscious has recorded.
I am aware that I take deep breaths now and again. I move my head to release the tension on my neck. My body is dead weight. My awareness is acute. I am tuned in to his every word and other noises in the room and beyond its doors and walls. I feel the movement and temperature of the surrounding air. I sense the modulation of his voice and the fine-tuning of my bodily states, mostly heavy and limp and my eyes feel stretched out. What a strange state of awareness – fully awake and yet, under the spell of a suggestive voice. I go down an elevator, then I walk down the stairs to a garden.
What is this garden? The sunlight is softly filtered perhaps by an early morning mist and there’s a tree in the middle. A pathway surrounds the tree and one by one, my loved ones from previous times appear. The first to appear is my dog, Chloe. Not far is my Beloved Bruno. He wears the shirt I gave him for Christmas in 2014. He loved that shirt. Then others appear one by one: my cousin Sonny, my father Andre, my elderly best friend Helen, Bruno’s father, Christian, whom I never met, Bruno’s friend Hiep, and Bruno’s surrogate mother at the farm in Brittany. Her name was Helen also. Then I see David and Valentine – the dog and cat under the fig tree. After a brief conversation with each one or just looking into each others’ faces, I stand back and watch both sides of our families and friends mingle. It is a garden party. I don’t really know what to say or ask them so the therapist suggests to me to ask Bruno what lessons he was supposed to teach me and what did he learn from me.
Bruno to me: “Take a bite out of life”. “Don’t live with regrets.”
What he learned from me: “Sweetness”, “Gentleness”, “Happiness in each others’ company”
This is just the beginning of the journey. Later I am drifting with a light energy to meet my spiritual guide. I know his face. It is also the spiritual guide of Paramahansa Yogananda. Now I understand why I had an affinity to Sri Yukestewar. He was in the pages of “Autobiography of a Yogi”. He was the brightest star in Paramahansa Yogananda’s life. And I find out now that he too was my karmic spiritual guide. He had saved me from poverty in the streets of India. I was an orphan begging at the railway station. I moved from homelessness to live in his orphanage where I was nourished with food and love. Then I grew up there and became part of its foundations to help other orphans survive and thrive.
After an hour of past life regresion I come back to 2018 in my body, in the same room where I entered the garden and later I turned towards the staircase that lead away from the garden. Upon leaving the garden I said to Bruno “I have to go”. This is quite the opposite of what had happened in January with his unexpected and sudden death. This time it is me saying to my Beloved I am going. I am leaving the realm of the superconscious to return to a shallower realm of the consciousness – the realm of problem-solving, questions (lots of it), judgements, loneliness and occasional breakthroughs to the underlying reality that we are all one. We are energy condensed into matter with a veil of separateness because of ego and free will.
I recognize that it would be hard to convince anyone of you readers about this visceral experience. What led me to this particular path of exploration? Why? And where to now? My deep interest in metaphysics is what attracted me to attend a workshop sponsored by the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE) with the featured speaker Gregg Unterberger M.Ed, LPC. The topic was “Edgar Cayce on The Unseen Worlds – Past Lives, Future Lives, the Afterlife”. The timeliness of this workshop was a god-send for someone like me who needs to tether to another realm of truth for answers to questions that this day-to-day reality cannot provide so readily. That answers the What and Why. Where to now? I have a sense of hope, a lightness of being after being unburdened with the questions. At least, I had a chance to see and talk to my Beloved (even if perhaps it was in my imagination). But it was real. I know it. I am moving a little more forward and treading the earth a little lighter. That mountain of grief doesn’t appear so tall and unsurmountable. There is a path.
On this path I carry a book written by Gregg Unterberger. The book is titled “The Quickening”. In my own words it describes proven techniques for spiritual awakening based on scientific research and deep soul searching from an educated and compassionate healer. From my experience, it is the reality-shattering experiences such as a trauma that can jar a person into waking up from a recurring nightmare of flatlining to ennui or meaninglessness. I did recognize I needed help and so I reached out for it. I am grateful that I found this modality of help that is inline with my personal belief system.
I went to the gym tonight, as I have every other day this week. This morning, like every morning the last few weeks, I woke up an hour before my alarm and luxuriously rose back up to life with cereal and juice and music and dog snuggles. I’ve been going to be bed early and I make my bed every single morning. I clean up after myself when I leave each room. I’ve been cooking meals and eating them (instead of just binging family-sized chips from a bag in bed). I shower…regularly.
I don’t recognize myself at all!
The last month or so has been spent preparing my old and new residences for a move. Painting walls back, painting walls…forward? Packing, U-hauls, buying new things to fill the new space, painting and more painting, unpacking, rearranging, dreaming and planning and doing. Towards the end of August I officially moved in with my best friend into the house he has been renting with another person/people for years.
We have learned and are still learning together how to grow through the challenges of taking a relationship to the next level (even platonically–moving in together is an adjustment!), of learning how to communicate needs and wants and feelings, how to prioritize creative differences and compromise, how to support and love and push each other. While there have been tears and fights, on the whole…now, a few weeks into our new “normal”…I can honestly say I have never felt more balanced, happy, or been more productive.
And there is more than one reason for that. A few weeks ago I casually posted on social media that I was considering starting my own design business. What had happened was a few weeks before that I had been offered a job that would have propelled me into a life I never imagined I’d live, with money I’d never imagined I’d have, doing a job I’ve never wanted to have. It was an incredible opportunity and I was totally flattered and, frankly, salivating a little at the idea of the huge leap in income, but ultimately, I turned it down. I turned it down because 40 hours a week of my life is far too large a sacrifice and because I am Andie Bottrell and I am a goddamn talented, hard working creative entity and I’ll be damned if I can’t make something of myself in the creative realm.
So, I mentioned toying with the idea of starting my own design company–call it Designing Indie or something. Suddenly friends started reaching out to me to create things for them. As soon as I finished one project, another project would arrive. It’s been wild and wildly unexpected. I’ve been so busy working on client projects I haven’t had time to design my logo and my website to officially launch the business!
This constant creative work (on top of the two day jobs I still hold down) has been a lot, but it has been rewarding and validating as hell. I love the challenge of learning new aspects of creating. I’ve made custom stationary, business logos, business cards, magazine ads, a poster, and a website in the last few weeks.
Recently I was back in Los Angeles for week to work on a TV pilot I co-created/co-wrote that we were filming…which was it’s own kind of “growth opportunity,” but I didn’t know if when I arrived back in Los Angeles for the first time since I moved (against my will) back to Missouri 5 years ago…if I would regret last years decisions to stay in Springfield and not move back. But I didn’t. I didn’t at all. What’s more…as I walked through various LA hotspots, I noticed a significant change…I no longer felt weighed down by that heavy need for everyone I met and everyone who could see me to like me, find me attractive, and want to hire me.
I love my life. I love myself. I don’t need to impress anyone to achieve either of those things anymore. This little life I have now…I built that myself and with the help of friends and family near and dear to me. I don’t feel anxious to find love or romance–in fact, I don’t want to bring anyone into my life who can’t match or improve what’s already been built, because it is so good and it’s been so long coming.
My home now is filled with love and creativity, laughs and ideas, music and hearty meals. My life is filled with creating every single day, advocating for kids, spending time with people I love sharing time with, performing, sleeping with dogs in my bed, and living with a feeling that anything I want to make happen…I can make happen. And if I ever start to doubt that…I have several someones who remind me.
I know and respect myself and am learning every day how to speak up for myself and my beliefs.
I don’t recognize myself! The young woman who started blogging for LAFPI five years ago would have never stayed in Springfield, MO and declared it “home,” she would never have been able to walk through Hollywood or any street in this body with arms exposed and not had to fight back an avalanche of self-hatred and the impulse to bang her wrist against hard surfaces, she wouldn’t be able to not apologize for having needs, she wouldn’t be happy to just create…she wanted to create in one specific way, she wanted success in one specific way, she thought she needed to look one specific way, she thought she needed to live in one specific city and have one specific life to be happy and fulfill her destiny… but all of the beautiful details of life, all the joy and beauty and growth… it all comes from letting go of those specificities that you can’t control and embracing, instead, the universe’s divine concoction of whatever happens, plus what you make of it.
You are *exactly* where you are. What are you gonna do with it?
PS. If you have Showtime, be sure to catch me in Above Ground starting in October. It’s a movie I did a few years ago that’s now making it’s TV premiere! Who knew moving back to Missouri would land me a big role in a movie on Showtime? Not me!
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.
Well, its Friday, and I’ve just completely slacked on blogging during my guest week! In order to make amends, I offer you a series of unique photos from Unsplash as writing prompts. What worlds do these photos inspire in you? Photo by Aeviel Cabral on UnsplashPhoto by Jimmy Fermin on Unsplash
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.