My nearly-three-year-old got sick. He yacked all over the place, and then I felt like I was going to yack all over the place, and he definitely yacked all over my husband, and I definitely almost yacked back, so that took several days to recover from.
We’ve been traveling. My husband presented at a conference. The tot finally got better, then we got on a plane, and then we got to spend a day at the beach. Who wants to hunker down with their laptop when the San Diego beach is in your face?
I have grades to enter. Students to email. Lesson plans to make. It’s Thanksgiving break, and I’m thankful for the time it gives me to get caught up.
My toddler is screaming. He has a poopy diaper, but he likes it that way (apparently) because he is screaming at anyone who approaches to try and change it. Speaking of poopy diapers…
Donald Trump is president.
I wake up everyday with trepidation… What will happen today? Whose shoe will be the next to drop? How am I supposed to write when there is all this news to obsess over?
I’m pregnant. My back hurts. I’m tired. I’m making another human, even as I panic about the world going to absolute shit, and I wonder how irresponsible it is to be creating life in the face of so much global disaster. It’s exhausting.
The cats are meowing. They want some of my cinnamon roll… well, they want the butter I slathered on top of it. They’re adorable. I definitely need to spend the next thirty minutes trying to convince them to sit in my lap and snuggle.
My imagination is tired from imagining how many ways the apocalypse might come, what shape it might take, and what we’ll do when it gets here.
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?
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.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Here’s the thing. We all want our plays to mean something. In political times like these (or, if we’re being real, at just about any political time ever), the writer stands at the precipice of a canyon of noise and anger and disruption. And we think – how can I possibly make a blip in this mess?
As both a marketing person and a playwright, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people about why a play is “relevant” – and more than that, why theatre is “relevant” – and why they should spend this amount of money and this amount of time buying into a false reality and be moved in some way, to be challenged or questioned.
It is exhausting.
In our struggle to be “relevant” (a word I might actually despise right now) – we playwrights sometimes produce “message” plays – plays that tend to hit on a topical conversation (gay marriage, terrorism, gun control, abortion) but not only hit on it, hit it right on the damn nose. There’s usually a moment when the playwright-thinly-veiled-as-a-character has a speech that describes why their view on the topic is the correct one. We all have one of these plays because the topic is important to us, because we are trying to be heard above the noise, because goddamnit, art can mean something.
The problem with message plays is that they tend to preach to the choir. My opinion is not going to be changed because you deliver a monologue in my direction. Chances are, if I’m in the audience of your message play, I already agree with you. It’s the algorithm. It is everywhere.
But, I will question my point of view if you give me characters I can relate to and love, a situation that is relatable or complicated and tense, and a slice of humanity that perhaps I had never considered before. Show me the grey area I’ve been ignoring. I might not change my opinion, but perhaps now I can see through the clutter and the postulating, all the way to the person on the other side.
Theatre has to work harder, to be more than a Facebook or Twitter argument. Give me a message, but dip it in character and setting and poetry and beauty and darkness and comedy first. Coat it on thick, pull all the threads together, and make me swallow it with a smile on my face or ugly tears in my eyes. And I will digest that message over the next day or week or months or years – I will feel it there, even if the words don’t come right away.
I don’t want a thesis statement. I don’t want to be able to describe in a sentence what your play was about after I’ve walked out. Make me feel it, show me what its about. Audiences are smarter than you think. Make them work. Even when they are being entertained, put them to work. This is not a passive art. It is not a passive life. We cannot be passive.
Here’s the thing. There are plenty of people out there who say that art is irrelevant (and plenty of those people are in power right now), or that they don’t take meaning from art and that art is not there to mean something. But art always means something, even if you don’t realize what it is telling you. We consume stories and art constantly, even if we never step foot in a theatre.
So I suppose all plays are message plays. But it is how we choose to frame it that makes the difference. Take your message and frame it in different ways. See what life it takes on.
We cannot measure our worth as writers based on the number of minds that are changed after two hours of the theatre. Minds are far too stubborn. Instead, we should challenge ourselves to let our hearts explode onto the page and the stage, and hope somehow, somewhere, a shard of the heart lodges into another person, and you are intrinsically linked for the rest of your lives.
The world is changed by marches and strikes and wars and protests and hitting the pavement, but also by one shard of one heart in one stranger.
Here’s the thing. It is exhausting. It is indescribably messy.
These days, I produce a podcast called the Book Club for Kids. A trio of middle graders discuss a novel, there’s an interview with the author and a reading from the book by a “celebrity.”
Last month, I blew it. I was a no-show at a scheduled taping. More than a dozen young readers were waiting for me that Sunday afternoon and I stood them up.
I could use the excuse that I was jet lagged, arriving after midnight the night before from a cross-country flight. Or I could plead that Sundays I take a tech Sabbath, not looking at my phone – and its calendar – at all. But excuses didn’t make any difference to the dozen or so disappointed young readers awaiting their chance at podcast stardom…and their angry parents who’d driven for miles to get their kids to the bookstore for the taping.
It was then that it became very clear that I needed to get organized.
I’m not the only one – particularly at this time of year. You can’t even go in to the Home Depot without stumbling over a display of 2018 calendars for sale. At Fed Ex, pickings were slim among the display of pretty, fat calendar books with floral motifs. Even my husband gets into the act every December, watching the mailbox for the one thing on which he spends an absurd amount of money: the new filler for his portable paper calendar book.
Then I stumbled across Bullet Journals. There’s an enormous cult following for “BuJo” as the aficionados call them. Invented by a digital designer named Ryder Carroll, Bullet Journals seem to have captured the imagination.
The basic idea is simple: a blankish book and a variety of colored pens and perhaps a ruler are all it takes. I say blankish because “BuJos” prefer blank pages with dots that they can use as grid makers to create weekly or monthly pages full of “things to do” lists and food diaries and weather reports and words of the day.
Things get more extravagant after that.
Some “BuJos” fight on social media about page thickness and the bleed level of pens. They proudly show off their collection of highlighter pens. (Who knew there was a gray highlighter pen?) There’s a debate about whether stickers are appropriate. I counted eight different groups on Facebook devoted to Bullet Journals, including the Minimalist Bullet Journal group that still seems overly complicated to me. Pinterest, as you can imagine, has hundreds of pictures of Bullet Journals.
Buzz Feed has an article to tell you what your style of Bullet Journaling says about you. I realized my style says I am not a Bullet Journaling kind of girl. I can’t draw. I never scrapbooked in my life. And why would I spend hours drawing in the dates of a 2018 calendar when I can get a perfectly good one at any store in America?
I think the BuJo serves the same purpose for visual people as my Morning Pages do for a word person like me. Julia Cameron’s classic “Artist’s Way” assignment has always helped me untangle my disorganized brain. Sitting down first thing in the morning to scribble away for three pages in a cheap composition book – part diary, part writing ideas, mostly things to do lists – grounds me and helps me sort out what’s important in my life and what to let go. Obviously it wasn’t enough to keep me from missing an important appointment.
So I bought a nice, light paper calendar that fits in my handbag. I’ve started marking it up with travel plans and podcast tapings. More important, I vowed to look at it every day. Even on my tech Sabbath.
What about you? How do you keep organized? Please share your secret!
I think we can agree that this year has been a busy one, full of newsworthy events capable of derailing sensitive souls everywhere and sending them into a pit of despair over the current condition of the all-too-human condition.
I’ve had a couple days like that recently. (It doesn’t help that I’m 7 months pregnant and full of hormones that have turned even the most ridiculous of commercials into automatic tear-jerkers.)
But I realized something in the midst of my most recent news-induced funk: I’m a playwright!
I can write about the stuff that’s wrecking me emotionally.
And that snapped me out of my depressive couch-potato state, and my muse started brainstorming and plot-outlining, and even though I haven’t yet decided if I want to write the play I began crock-potting inside my playwright brain all those weeks ago, it has helped me feel actionable!
And I think that’s important.
As an artist, it feels sometimes like there is just too much suffering to bear — and, as an artist, it also feels like I have very little to contribute in the ways of actually affecting change.
But I can write.
I can try to create pieces of theatre that bring my view of things into focus, and that—if I do my job well—invite others to look closer at these things with me. To mine them for possible solutions. To create conversation and empathy, and to MAYBE make things a little better?
At least, I can try!
Because although I very much enjoy entertainment for entertainment’s sake, I also believe in theatre’s power to stir conversation, incite action, and engage an audience’s problem solving skills. Why then, can’t I create theatre that does something?
So, while there are a lot changes coming my way in 2016 (new baby, probably a move to a new city after my husband finishes his MFA program this Spring) and a lot of changes coming on a bigger scale (US elections and God knows what other crazy world events heading down the pipeline) I’m feeling a sense of optimism and anticipation about it all that was eluding me a few weeks back, as I sat on the couch, and wept for the world (and at those damn holiday commercials).
And so, I leave you with this: May your seasons also be brightened by the recognition of your own word-smith powers! Now, get to writing!
In the backroom of the Samuel French Bookstore on Sunset Boulevard surrounded by brilliant manuscripts, a group of forty or so women came together to support each other in their Hollywood Fringe endeavors. It was inspiring. The place was buzzing with pre-Fringe excitement, as postcards and smiles were exchanged.
Jennie Webb introduced the meat of the meeting, the Micro-Reads, where the writers and actors are able to promote their work and receive encouragement and feedback. At the front of the room was a box where writers had dropped a page to be read. The writer, when picked, would introduce the piece and select actors to perform it. This was my first Micro-Reads, my first LA FPI meeting, and my first time in the Samuel French Bookstore. I was astounded and warmed by the respect and enthusiasm of the audience and the writers. People eagerly volunteered to act and the responses were energetic and encouraging.
The pieces read were eclectic and promising, most were excerpts from the plays going up at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, a taster to get us to the theatre. From a mother addicted to smoothies and in love with her blender (Snack) to a woman in love with an elevator (a short story excerpt) to a woman falling from an elevator (Susan Tierney) – each preview was so very different, and yet I wanted to see them all. And, I could. I could see them all at the Hollywood Fringe!
Each performer was asked to introduce herself, what she was working on, what she needed, and what she could give. The concept of stating what one could give was beautiful and electrifying, concreting the firm support system of LA FPI – we need to work together in order to succeed. Most writers just wanted their play to be seen, their message to be heard; they wanted to support other women’s plays, and in return be supported. They offered comp swaps and PWYC. They offered to help run the box office and Front of House. Constance Strickland has even created a facebook group where women can ask for and offer support. I had a fantastic time at the LA FPI meeting, and was truly inspired.
I left in a fuzzy, happy cloud of dreams, amazed at the encouragement, support, and commitment of the LA FPI, and wanting to get involved. The excitement for the upcoming month of June was palpable. The Hollywood Fringe is just around the corner with previews starting Thursday June 4th, and performances all throughout the month (and even into July and August for whoever wins the Fringe Awards!). I am excited to see what presents the #fringefemmes have prepared for Fringe 2015!
It’s Christmas time in Hollywood, the Fringe is finally here!
I have a theory about this – I don’t necessarily think we’re all predisposed. But I think the actual, repeated practice of creating and sharing our art can make our emotions go haywire.
In two ways –
The Process: The same instinct that makes us good writers – the ability to self-edit, to sift, to weed out the bad ideas from the good, in short, to critique – is what can also make writing so painful. Because as we write, our inner editor is chomping on the bit to tell us how this draft is terrible, how this idea is pointless, how no one will ever want to do this, how it’s a waste of our time and (let’s take this to the logical end) how we’re a fraud and will never write anything good ever again. We all hear this nasty voice in our head from time to time – the trick of course, is to rein it in, to allow just the right amount of self-critique into our process, perfectly calibrated to the needs of that particular draft.But wow, that’s a really hard thing to ask of ourselves, isn’t it? And in addition, the madness inside our heads isn’t caused by anything we could call “real”. We’re miserable because we can’t figure out the solutions to problems that we made up for characters and situations that don’t exist. It’s hella weird.
The Production: So as playwrights, we deeply care about our audiences. We write a play as a gift to be shared – not just with our collaborators, but with living, breathing human beings who gather in a room together, who’ve plonked down money and found babysitters and driven out and given up their evening to spend with our stories. So we really care about them.In speaking just for myself, the audience is always top of my mind, from the first draft through to opening night. Yes, it’s important that I’m happy, that my artistic team is happy, but by god, I really want the audience to be happy. I want them to have such a good time in the theatre. The fact that I care so much is one of my strengths, and it shows in my writing.
But once the production is up and running, I can’t turn this off. So when the reviews are out, I’m setting myself up to be a complete emotional mess. Sarah Ruhl recently said, so easily, that she doesn’t read anything written about herself. Lauren Gunderson has said she only reads the good reviews. I wish I could pick either lane. But no – I can’t turn off that instinct to care about what people think, even at the stage where I have no power to change anything, even if I wanted to. That’s not healthy.
So basically, my theory is that both the inside of playwriting (the process), and the outside of it (collaboration and reception) are fraught with triggers. And ironically, the further I progress in my career, the more frequently I face these triggers, and with higher stakes each time.
The more I learn about playwriting, the more plays I write and see, the harsher my inner-critic gets, because now I know better, and I know what I’m up against.
Commissions are the best, but they bring out my inner-critic in full force, because now there’s that additional, awful fear of letting someone down.
The more production opportunities I get, the more reviews I’ll get, and the more people will have things to say about my work. Google will be my nemesis forever.
I know that I should hopefully arrive at a sort of equilibrium at some point. As I mature as a writer, I’ll be able to tamper that inner voice. The more I recognize my process, my patterns, the less I’ll freak out when I think something isn’t going well. And maybe one day I’ll achieve Sarah Ruhl levels of poise where I exist in a transcendent bubble of perfection (I love Sarah Ruhl, this is me being totally straight with you. Also, she’s never gonna read this.)
But until then, I would love to hear from LAFPI readers on how you manage these issues, and what tricks you have to get around these emotional speed bumps, these exhausting obstacles as we all try to navigate a happy, balanced, and productive life in the theatre.
Hello, LAFPI readers! I hope you all had a lovely weekend.
For my first post this week, I wanted to talk about writers and depression (isn’t that an auspicious beginning.) Mostly because I had read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s amazing op-ed in The Guardian about her journey with depression, and it’s been rattling around in my head for several weeks now.
So I had no idea about the kerfuffle that ensued after I had read that piece – apparently it was published without Adichie’s permission, which is just awful on so many levels, and was retracted from the website. However, she did then give this wonderful interview to the blog Olisa.tv, about the article and its ramifications, and I would highly recommend reading it.
The thing that I’ve been trying to figure out about her article was actually my own reaction to it. It was the question that popped up – why is she depressed? To put it far more crudely – what does she have to be depressed about? Adichie is one of our greatest living writers, beloved around the world, achieving incredible success in a field that’s notoriously hard to break into, especially for women of color.
I also had a similar reaction when I read this piece in the New Yorker a few years ago – about therapy for working (and often consistently working, i.e. successful) screenwriters. What do they have to complain about?
It’s a terrible attitude, and one that I turn on myself too. I thankfully do not suffer from clinical depression or similar chronic health conditions, but I do get sad sometimes. When I am sad, I feel absolutely powerless. The same question surfaces – what do you have to complain about? – but even as I intellectually understand what it means, engaging with the question does nothing to affect my mood. If anything, it makes me feel worse. Most of the time these bouts last for a few days at most, and then I’m fine. But last month, my ‘bout’ lasted three weeks, and it was awful. It also came at a time when I was on vacation, in my parents’ home in India, with all my needs taken care of and all my wants attended to by my loving family. The incongruity of my feelings with my actual situation was almost too much to bear.
I’m back in a good place now, but what those weeks gave me was (hopefully) a permanent shifting of my perspective, a good dose of empathy. Being sad is scary. It’s lonely. Most of the time, it’s beyond our control. The absolute wrong thing to do is to question the validity of someone’s experiences because you think they shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. How ridiculous!
Upon looking back, I have found that my sadness bouts are usually intimately tied to my writing process, and to the struggles of crafting a career as a playwright. I think a lot of readers of this blog may feel or have felt the same way. For my next post, I’ll be writing more about the unique challenges of controlling our emotions, when paradoxically, our lives as playwrights require us to be open, receptive and porous to the world and everything that it throws at us.
In the meantime, be sure to read the Adichie interview! She’s amazing. And I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments – it’s a tricky subject and I’m always open to learning more and understanding these issues in a better way.
Having gone through an entire year striving for harmony, I find myself in these last few days 1) very excited about the coming year and what it will bring, and 2) nearly undone by the journey thus far – nearly but not completely… It has been hard getting out of my old skin and becoming…more…but it has also been enlightening.
Harmony is a coming together, a joining together, unification, agreement, accord, synchronization…
Harmony enhances the melody. All I need to do is keep my strings tuned and know when to play second fiddle even though I can play first.
2014 has been a year of going deep, of following the rabbit down that rabbit hole and experiencing the entirety of wonderland. Forcing myself to go with the flow has taken me to new levels in my writing. I have finally shed the last of my inhibitions; usually less inhibited when writing poetry, I have seen my recent pieces come to the page in more exacting ways since I have decided to “write it like poetry”. Scary and exciting and liberating…
2015 hints at being a very good year…
May your 2015 bring you harmony and growth and prosperity…