Tag Archives: writing

Writer Responsibility 101

by Chelsea Sutton

Back in the olden days, when people gathered together in musty lecture halls to discuss the “literary” canon, I was a TA for a large literature class whose professor loved to include novels involving navel-gazing male protagonists. I was in charge of roughly a quarter of the 130 eager undergraduates, many of whom were aspiring writers themselves.

In my sections, I made it very clear that these students were under no obligation to LIKE any of these 10 books we were reading and that, in fact, I HATED some of them as well. Just because a professor is telling you it’s good does NOT mean you have to agree, I said. But agree or not, you better be able to tell me why you feel that way.

See, it’s my philosophy that you can learn just as much about writing from reading a book you hate as you can from reading one you love. Maybe even more so.

I had to teach Greg Jackson’s book of short stories Prodigals both times I covered this literature class. To spare you the details, most of the stories in the book are about terrible privileged people doing terrible privileged things. But of course, one could argue that most stories are about terrible people. In my house, we don’t say: hey, do you want to watch Avenue 5 tonight? We say: hey, do you want to watch Shitty People in Space tonight?

I do not enjoy Prodigals. Though there are a few sentences I wish I had written.

So Fall 2018 rolls around and we get to Prodigals week. One of my students does not like the book. Why, I asked. He doesn’t agree with the morality of the book – how the characters behaved and treated each other. Doesn’t writing about that behavior condone it? he asked. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the author to expose bad behavior or offer positive role models and morality?

I mean, what a fucking good question.

Let’s get real: no one really likes Aesop’s fables. Not all the time. We don’t want Breaking Bad to wrap up its series finale with: the moral of the story, kids, is don’t become a meth dealer in New Mexico!

But I’d argue that an author has an obligation to read the damn room, to have a larger understanding of the context in which the writing is presented and read, to understand that nothing exists in a vacuum, and to do their due diligence.

Don’t ask me how we got there, but we compared two television shows to explore this line of thinking: Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Phillip K. Dick) and one that was in development at the time – Confederate, supposedly going to be penned by the Game of Thrones guys, who, you know, never caused an issue (eye roll).

Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Allies lose WWII and Germany and Japan occupy the United States. Confederate is an alternate history in early development at HBO in which the South won the Civil War – so slavery was still a thing in its universe (this was going to be helmed by WHITE MEN, as a reminder.)

At first, the students didn’t see the difference. Two wars, two alternate histories, so what? I am not a history expert nor well-versed in either of these shows, I said. BUT…

Let’s look at the context and the general narratives surrounding both wars, I said. In this country we have oversimplified the WWII narrative to be about good vs. evil. Sure, you could quibble about this or that, but The Good Guys won. So we take that context with us when watching the show. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that the correct people won that war, except maybe Neo-Nazis and aluminum foil-wearing conspiracy theorists, but do you really want them on your side?

No thanks, they said.

Now the Civil War. That’s another thing. We seem to have an ongoing debate in this country surrounding what that war was about (slavery). Many people argue that it was about state’s rights (it was slavery). Many states in the South still have statues of Confederate war heroes (slave owners) and fly the Confederate flag (you know, about slavery).* There are still people in this country who are not convinced that slavery is a bad idea. WE DO NOT HAVE AN AGREED UPON NARRATIVE SURROUNDING RACISM IN THIS COUNTRY. And that carries with us as we watch the show. Would you agree?

Oh shit, yeah, they said.

So back to morality and responsibility. You’re writing a show like Confederate. If you’re going to write a good story, then you’re going to have fleshed out characters, right? That means the slaves and the slave owners will have nuances and good qualities and tragic flaws and we will FEEL for them. And they will exist in a complicated world. And maybe there will be an Emmy-contending monologue in act 4 of the pilot that offers a damn good argument for slavery.

Sounding worrisome? Or at the very least…delicate? In need of a deft hand?

What is the danger of offering up an empathetic slave owner in a society in which we still have not achieved true equity, have not done the work required to actually deal with these sins in a way that uplifts, creates anti-racist policies, and gathers the country into a narrative we agree on?

Especially if that story is offered to us by people who cannot and DO NOT CARE TO understand racism in the way that the Black actors, Black crew members, and Black viewers would understand it. We’ve all seen Game of Thrones. What do YOU think would happen?

Light bulbs flipped on all over the room. These kids had so much to say.

I might be wrong and obtuse about all of this, I said. And please, question me. Question me, question your own thoughts and biases too. Maybe Confederate could be done really well. But look at who is telling the story and why. Who is invited into the room and who is not.

You cannot control how everyone is going to read your writing. It’s simply not possible. But I believe that our responsibility as writers is to first ask ourselves the hard questions about our characters, our narratives, and the larger world in which they will be interacting.

It’s our job to ask the hard questions even when we don’t know the answers. ESPECIALLY when we don’t know the answers. And to confront our own biases and blindness. To show shitty people doing terrible things and sometimes even BE shitty people doing terrible things, but to learn from those stories, to let the stories maybe, somehow, help us build a world that is better than this one.

But that still doesn’t make Prodigals any good.

P.S. Here are my favorite books from that class (both written by Black authors.) Read them. I’m available for discussion at my office hours posted in the syllabus.

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Also, Lindsey Ellis’ video essay about Mel Brooks and the Ethics of Satire is required watching.

*Fucking hooray to all the statues and confederate flags being burned and removed.

But does it matter?

by Chelsea Sutton

It’s the usual setup for a scene (these days): two friends are on a Skype hangout on a Saturday morning. One friend proposes to the other this question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?

It’s a question that I think about a lot, especially when it comes to things. The stuff we collect, pin up on our bulletin boards, pack into scrapbooks. I’ve spent that last year systematically going through my grandmother’s stuff and (with her) deciding what should stay and what should go. All these things that were once so important being packed away, sold for pennies, sent to the dump.

I just spent this Pandemic Sunday cleaning through my desk, reorganizing my space for increased at-home work, and doing a similar exercise. My apartment has a grandma feel to it – there are lots of things around (though I like to think that I have arranged them in more of an “artistic” way than a “ohmygodtheclutteryouhoarder” way). I tend to hold onto notes and photos, gather small items or images from my travels, buy books I have no time to read. I like having things around me that remind me of beautiful times, of people I love, of the person I hope I’m becoming. And I often think of the day I die – someone coming into my space and seeing the same things and seeing mostly junk, wondering why I would hold on to these things. I imagine all of these precious items being thrown into the dump.

My current bulletin board after a purge.

And certainly the meaning of some things change. I just tossed away some letters from grad school that already gave me what I needed (but the emotion attached to them a year ago – can you imagine!) My grandmother and I threw out a lot of things she gathered on her travels (who knew porcelain plates used to be the BIG thing in souvenirs?) And now, those things are just in the way, signifying nothing.

What’s that Macbeth quote?
“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

But I often hold onto things because I don’t trust my memory. I want to be reminded – I need my memory backed up to a hard drive of sorts. Journals can do this, I suppose, but even as a writer I started to feel how little a simple journal could hold.

And in some way, the work we do as writers is reaching for that – the holding on to some Beauty or Truth or Whatever and preserving it and preserving ourselves in some way too. We all want to create something that matters.

But it is debilitating and useless for that to be the goal. It is too big, too nonspecific to be helpful.

So, back to the scene on Skype. Back to the question: does any of these things we do in our lives (our successes, relationships, failures) really, ultimately, matter?

If the moment we’re in now tells us anything it’s that our choices have ripple effects. How we choose to conduct our lives affects others. Our world has taught us to be so focused on individual success, to place us in constant competition, we forget that we do, ultimately, matter to each other.

Are we all going to be Superman and single-handedly save New York? No. And why would you want that? Sounds exhausting. I’d much rather be the Guardians of the Galaxy, fighting alongside friends, for better or worse.

Saw these guys in San Francisco before the pandemic.
Sometimes its not worth being preserved forever.

So does any of it matter? Yes and no.

Yes because the work we do, what we put out into the world – you don’t know who its going to change, affect, transform, inspire, scare, motivate.

No because each individual thing is just part of your longer story. When we read or watch stories and fall in love with characters – remember that we tend to not judge characters so much on their failures, but on what they choose to do in the collective whole.

It is all equally meaningless and meaningful, beautiful and two feet away from the dump.

But I think that’s why it is all meaningful. Because it can all be taken away so quickly and become so meaningless.

That’s why I hold onto that rock I found on the beach on the Isle of Mann, or those plastic pearls my grandmother used to wear all the time, or the Valentine my mom wrote me just a month ago.

So go make something meaningless.

Year Without A Spring

by Chelsea Sutton

1816 was a miserable year. Known as the Year Without A Summer, global temperatures decreased thanks to a large volcanic eruption, leading to failed crops and famine, and…wait for it…disease.

It was also the year Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born.

Many of us have heard the story. A group of friends, shut in from the cold, locked away from much of civilization, haunted by their own individual fears and worries and distractions, challenge each other to a ghost story contest.

Here is what Mary writes about that challenge, which eventually led to a nightmare that eventually led to Frankenstein:

I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. 

We have officially entered our own Year Without A Spring with the COVID-19 pandemic. The sun may shine, rain may fall, the mayor of LA is THIS CLOSE to mandating hikes. The shelves may be empty but food is being delivered. It is not the desperate darkening of the Earth in the same way as 1816 – but 1816 and 2020 are kindred spirits. People are still dying. People are isolated. People are not supported by the systems we swore were solid weeks before.

There is a general chaos, a general undercurrent vibration of uncertainty and anxiety and fear. If you don’t believe me, spend 5 minutes on Facebook.

There is also a lot of hope and community support. Artists coming together. Creating things. Certainly I’ve seen the story of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. Ugh. As if we weren’t under enough pressure already.

And then of course here I am offering up Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein during another deadly year. But I don’t offer up this story as an example of unending production. I don’t want to say, “Hey, this is our chance! Write that Great American Rona Play/Novel!” Just because we are locked in our homes does not mean what we produce must be a novel that transcends 200 years of literary history.

Instead, reread that quote from her introduction. Invention comes out of chaos. It comes out of the moment of change, of wonder, of fear. All you may accomplish right now is a lot of walking around in silence, a lot of nightmares. But that, too, is creation.

I went to a writing residency in 2017 in the month between leaving my day job and going off to grad school. As much as I wanted to, I could not turn off the world. I was in a tailspin of work and change and uncertainty. And I was at a beautiful place where I was supposed to be writing. I did, a little. But my writing to-do list was barely touched. Instead I went on walks, hikes, cried into oysters, had nightmares. I felt lonely. I was alone.

When I talked to others who had been in similar situations, I heard many a story of writers going to residencies and writing little to nothing – only taking the time to sit and breathe and try to remember what it was that was interesting or terrifying or beautiful to them….the thing that led them to writing in the first place.

So I think that’s all we can ask now. Wander around your gothic mansion/studio apartment and indulge in a little ghost story challenge. Gather around the fire and let the nightmares play and dance and then burn out. If something lingers on, maybe you got something.

Fear (or was that anxiety)

by Cynthia Wands

The artist is Christian Schloe

Here ‘s a wonderful interview with James Grissom with  the late Marian Seldes. She was a force of nature, and someone who was a fearless artist. Here she talks about some of the facets of fear. And it’s amazing to see that it’s so connected to the process of sharing our work, as artists.

Mandala, original artwork Cynthia Wands

I asked Marian Seldes what she most wanted to teach her students, and she stopped me and said there was something she most wanted to teach everyone. This is what she told me in July of 2008. Always make sure that fear is fast on its feet around you. That’s something Garson [Kanin] told me. You can be afraid, but you can’t stay afraid. Deal with the fear, and I always dealt with it by recognizing immediately how I could vanquish it. Someone somewhere–nearby–is ready to help you with what frightens you, if only because they recognize the fear you currently have. They’ll remember feeling it, and they’ll remember how they got rid of it. Sometimes the fear disappears simply by reaching out to someone else for relief. We are not alone. We are all connected. In an acting situation, I always wanted students–and those with whom I was working as an actress–to firmly believe that I knew they belonged where they were: They had talent and worth and placement. If you make a mistake–even if you fail completely, as we all have–you still have merit and talent and are able to move on. Never be afraid of the work: You can be respectful of the task; you can want very much to live up to the expectations of the writer and the director and your peers, but fear is not a part of this. Fear is poisonous. I can always lose my sense of fear by looking at my partners and remembering that they have talent and resources, and they are my shore, my sturdy foundation on which I can stand. I need them, and they need me. In this sense of trust, great work can be made, and lovely friendships can be built. I heard someone say the other day that greatness lies beyond your greatest fear, and I think that’s true, but that greatness is what you find when you conquer the fear, throw it to the side. Fear tells us to protect a child, ourselves, a neighbor, an idea, but the greatness–or what I call our basic humanity–comes through when we help the child, the neighbor, repeat the idea, get back to work. Maybe fear is our conscience. Just a tap on the shoulder or a still voice reminding us what we should do, but our job is to still the voice, do the task. If we allow the fear to remain and grow, we become mean and suspicious, and we kill everything. Fear destroys us. Fear destroys everything. I think we were put here to restore and protect others, so I always remind people how quickly we have to dispatch fear and help each other and get on with the work. © 2018 James Grissom

Mandala, Original artwork, Cynthia Wands

Fear seems like such deep and overwhelming emotion to me; I think of characters on stage as experiencing fear as a mortal vulnerability. Some of the characters I’ve written seem to experience anxiety, more than fear, and it seems to lower the stakes for the outcome. I’m still thinking about fear. And feeling it too.

I really wanted to write, but…

Photo by Kevin Susanto on Unsplash

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.

I wanted to write this week.

I was going to write this week…

I Don’t Know How to Write (Prose) or Grammar Hell

by Kitty Felde

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?

On Finding Endings

by Chelsea Sutton

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.

One of many odd things…

Then I got back to LA. Did freelance work. Stressed out. Didn’t write much. Some screenplay stuff. Some rewrites for the new Rogue Artists Ensemble show I’ve been writing with Diana Burbano and Tom Jacobson.

Cried.

Ate too much cheese.

Stressed out.

Cried some more.

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.

Finding Meaning

by Chelsea Sutton

“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.

Pick a frame.

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.

And it is always relevant.

 

Getting Organized

by Kitty Felde

      It all started when I missed an appointment.

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!

Politics and playwrights and babies, oh my!

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!

~Tiffany Antone