All posts by Chelsea Sutton

Waiting for Permission

by Chelsea Sutton

I can remember almost every moment when someone has made me feel small and stupid for writing what I want to write.

These moments live rent free in my head, every time I sit down to the blank page.

At a writing workshop, a faculty person told me I was “putting on” a “quirky” sensibility, play-acting a quirky writer who writes quirky things, and that I would never succeed with this act.

Men have told me that things my female characters want don’t matter or the “stakes aren’t high enough” because the characters are unmarried and/or without children.

I’ve been told that a black comedy about criminals was good but that I was just play-acting at being a wannabe Martin McDonagh (this play was a finalist for the O’Neill).

Men have told me that my female characters are not “likable” particularly when they are not performing femininity in the way they expect it to look.

Men have asked me to think about what my plays are “about” without even trying to identify themes that are very obviously there (usually plays with all female casts).

I won’t even go into how many times people have looked down on genre (non realism) work.

I’ve heard the words “too weird” or “too experimental” or “too much (fill in the blank)” so often that every time I write I stop and doubt myself — checking myself in case I’m trying to be weird even when I don’t think the things I make are that weird. I would never call anything I do “experimental.” All I try to do is write what I’m interested in.

Everyone reading this has had an experience similar to these, or far far worse.

I’ve been thinking about these things because I recently finished a new play and had a reading at The Road as part of the Under Construction SlamFest. The play was about villains, female villains specifically, and not the Disney villains, but the ones who rip your life apart day-in-day-out. I’ve always wanted to go as far as McDonagh or Shepard or any other celebrated male writer who writes brutality and violence and ugliness mixed with humor. But there’s something inside me (possibly probably influenced by any version of the experiences above) that has stopped me from going as harsh or brutal as I could.

I’ve written violence before. My plays are dark as shit usually. But something about this play made me nervous. Every voice that has ever told me I’m just play-acting, every voice that told me women don’t act like this or don’t write like this, that women have to be likable, every voice that said they don’t like “experimental” work (does anyone even understand what that means?) — those voices surrounded this play in an intense and specific way. I could only really get pages out when I was under an extreme deadline (pages for writers group, pages for rehearsal, etc.) A deadline was the only thing that could silence the voices long enough so I could actually just WRITE IT. Because when I could write it, I could finally see it, without all the judgement.

And at the first rehearsal for the play, after we’d read it and were having a lovely chat about it, I asked the actors and director (a room full of women) if I could go further. Could I make it darker? More violent? Could I make the body count clear and HIGH by the end?

And everyone in the room said a resounding YES in unison.

And so I did.

Is the play perfect? Is it going far enough yet? Is it really truly itself yet? No. But that rewrite I did pushed it closer to its boundary. Because they said yes.

I will never forget the feeling of a room full of women giving me permission. I’m trying to reframe the negative voices as funny stories — silly interludes on the way to seeing the permission that was already mine. And yours, too.

To Patience

By Chelsea Sutton

In 2023, I wrote two full plays. Which, in theory, shouldn’t be HUGE for me. For about four years, 2014-2018, I wrote 2-3 full lengths a year. Some of them good (O’Neill finalists, etc.) some of them bad (let’s not talk about them). I never went to grad school for theatre, nor was it my undergrad focus. Like many of us, I just learned by MAKING SHIT. When I first moved to LA, I wrote monologues and one acts and did the weird, late-night bullshit in black box theatres, the kind where you cut your teeth to sharp points of theatrical nonsense, especially when you’re not tied to some fancy theatre school. While I wrote one full length a year in 2012 and 2013, I look at the massive uptick of WRITING from 2014-2018 as my real playwriting education.

But from 2019 to 2022, I couldn’t seem to write a play that made any sense. I truly thought I’d forgotten how to do this. I’d written my first one act as an 18 year old, my first full length in my senior year of college. And then suddenly, I just forget?

Maybe I never knew how to do this. Maybe I was a fraud.

A real picture of me as a real playwright.

Something happened to my brain in 2018 that fundamentally changed my playwriting process. I can’t pin point what, exactly. One big shift is that I was in grad school at the time for fiction writing – I’ve always been a multi-genre writer, and starting in 2016 I’d shifted some of my energy to developing that voice as well. I also shifted out of having a full time job – and haven’t gone back since.

I don’t know if those shifts had an affect. But suddenly I was approaching my plays from BIG IDEAS rather than from character or images, like my plays did during that four year education. From an adaptation of Frankenstein to a comedy about censorship to historical preservation through the lens of a dying mall – I felt like suddenly everything I’d taught myself didn’t apply anymore. These things were too big and massive – I couldn’t find my way through them to find the heart of the story. And the plays fell flat or remained confusingly chaotic or were left unfinished (I’ll blame the pandemic on that last one).

Something that felt like a huge part of my identity suddenly felt completely inaccessible.

But this year I wrote TWO plays. One I’m very proud of, one I’m very excited about because of its chaos. Whatever was rewiring in my brain between 2019 and now finally finished its work (until it has to rewire again – which, now that I know what it feels like, I’m sure will happen again). What was happening during that time, I think, is that I was synthesizing everything I’d learned from my MAKING SHIT education while combining it with my growing fiction skills and my arts leadership experiences that were putting many things into stark relief.

This was ANOTHER kind of education, I now realize. Having patience with myself. Having faith that “your process” is ever changing and growing and expanding, and that some plays you might need to WRITE in order to understand something, even if that play goes into a drawer or transforms into something else entirely. Two of my drawer plays will be transformed into novellas — the stage, I realize, is not the container they need. One play is transforming from a large immersive show into a two-person play. Another will be shedding it’s big ideas in favor of an entirely new subject that emerged from the writing and the characters.

It is hard to have patience with yourself, especially when it feels like everyone around you is shooting into the stratosphere, that they have their work figured out and have no doubts about their abilities or their rightful place in the industry. I spent most of the last two years convinced I no longer belonged, that theatre was lost to me.

I had deadlines and a strong need to prove something this year. But I had to also make patience a part of the practice. Maybe it was the thing missing all along.

Probably the only thing missing. For sure.

Just two weeks ago, I visited the South Dakota State University Department of Theatre for their second new works festival. Me and two other professional playwrights had readings of our plays, performed by the (awesome) students and directed by their (amazing) faculty. My play, THE DEAD WOMAN, was first written in (oh god) 2012, with readings and workshops in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2018, and during three of the four I did significant rewrites. Going into this reading, I was trying to approach it with patience – patience for my past, younger self, and patience for myself right now, who wanted to fix the play to perfection, to prove that it has earned the right to a production someday (hopefully). I did rewrite the ending and have some other trimming things to do – but what was so lovely about approaching the process with PATIENCE is that I could see my heart in the words – the heart of my 20-something self wrestling with big ideas and big feelings – and hear the response of the 20-somethings in the audience and in the cast.

And by rediscovering my love of these characters through these students, I could also reach through time to love myself too. Something that evades me most days. The act of falling in love with yourself is not one of ego or self-obsession – but of grace and care and patience.

In 2024, I hope you will honor whatever part of the process you’re in. I hope you will give yourself patience. I hope you will fall in love with your own heart again.

My Life’s Work

by Chelsea Sutton

I’ve been in this cycle lately where I compare myself to other people, which inevitably sends me into a depression, which then shoots me into a “not to worry, I’ll just work even harder!” and then into a depression again. I have the straight-A-student mindset (curse) where I need to know where I stand in the “class.” I organize my dreams like a to-do list in my planner, as if once I achieve them I will graduate into something else, or win at this writing thing or win life in general.

I know intellectually that every writing career looks different, and that we aren’t in competition, but emotionally I get fixated on moments where I fell short or was not ready for an opportunity or didn’t follow up and be loud about what I wanted or just plain failed. And then that failure and self-loathing become my entire personality for a bit. (Sorry to all my friends.) And those fixations make me blind to anything I actually have accomplished or to the potential of the current moment.

As a way to try to break this cycle and to put moments of my life in a little perspective, I’ve started a spreadsheet called “My Life’s Work.”

Me trying to figure out how the hell I got HERE.

On one tab I am listing all my short fiction, any awards or publications each story has received, word count, and year (sometimes a guess-imate) when it was written. I’m also including any stories I still have a full draft of that I shelved permanently, maybe never submitted for publication at all, that will never see the light of day again. They live on in the spreadsheet as a lovely grey row – because writing those failed stories were part of my education. Many of them I wrote as a baby writer, often with little to no real mentorship or community, and so my own words were teaching me what I knew. There are 44 stories so far on the list.

On another tab I’m listing all the full-length plays I’ve written, which are easier to track in their lumbering size. Outside of productions, awards, readings, etc, I try to list where I wrote it and what year. There are two grey-ed out plays on this list – one that was terrible and could never work (I took one of the characters from that and put him in another play), and the other I’m turning into a novella. So nothing is wasted, but I can see how those failed plays taught me some hard lessons. I’ve color-coded the others too – ones I think are actually solid, ones I wrote with Rogue Artists Ensemble (my home theatre company), ones that are “eh,” and ones I think are still in their development “has potential” phase. At this moment I’ve written 18 full length plays. Maybe greying out only two of them is being overly generous, lol.

Other tabs are starting to collect short plays (which are, for me, harder to trace and harder to remember), screen and audio and mixed media stuff, and directing.

I think I was drawn to doing this because I stopped journaling years ago. I need a way to reflect and process how I’ve spent my creative life. The narrative in my head can easily twist into “I just threw away the last three years – I did nothing!” but when I look at the spreadsheet I can actually see what I was actively working on, what led to a triumph the following year, or what ended in failure but what led to something better. Being able to step back and actually look at a map like this, to try to see the bigger picture and shape of my energy, has already helped calm me down and give myself some GRACE.

The big picture can be overwhelming.

There is a danger, of course, of something like this just reinforcing the habit of straight-A-student syndrome, of racking up the numbers and comparing them to other people’s life work that I can’t and never will see the depth of. But I intend and will work to keep it as a tool for Grace, a tool to understand how I traveled to this moment, so I can best prepare and celebrate the work ahead.

I understand that this is very career and creative project-focused (but this IS a blog about writing after all), and does not (yet) include other life things, like the goings-on of family and friends and travel and day jobs and hobbies. And to best think through those things, I’ll probably need to start journaling again.

Your “life’s work” is never just your actual work, of course. But I’ve started here because, like any little drama kid, I’ve marked phases of my life in whatever-play-I-was-working-on-at-the-time. This is how life makes sense to me because it’s how I’ve demarcated and oriented myself in time since I was 14.

Your “work” is not all there is of you, but I think for a writer or creator it is a part of you; you can trace your growth and sadness and curiosities as you trace the stories you were working on at any given moment. Even without writing a memoir, I’ve written a memoir.

This exercise might not be helpful for everyone. But I can guarantee, if you’re feeling like you haven’t done enough, haven’t accomplished enough, that you are lightyears behind everyone else, you are probably ignoring huge chapters of your story. Maybe you need to take a step back and give yourself some grace.

Here’s to a life’s work that is never done until it is, well, done.

The Day Job Quiz: What is YOUR ideal source for rent $$$? Let’s find out!

by Chelsea Sutton

Okay, so I did make a quiz – its embedded below but also here if you want to find out what your ideal non-wiring job is. But first…

Recently, someone confessed to me that they thought I was a full time writer. Ha.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

I’ll admit that when I was a baby writer I actually did think it would be possible to be a full time writer – maybe not easily, but it was POSSIBLE, as in, like, just keep getting better and working on your craft and put yourself out there and eventually it’ll happen.

Haha.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Obviously I’m still working on figuring this out and realizing there’s a whole part of networking and, you know, SPEAKING OUT LOUD WHAT YOU WANT that I just never learned that is wrapped up in writing careers. That has to do just a TAD with some gender politics, the school system, and the lies of the American Dream, but that’s another blog.

But recently being a writer in almost any medium seems to get harder and harder. The WGA is in the middle of a Writers’ Strike that has put a spotlight on the gigification of one of the few well-paid writing jobs out there. And the event is turning multi-union so let’s hope that what’s happening now will make writing a viable career for those in the future, but there’s no doubt the entertainment industry is shifting.

And AI threatens to fuck over not only creative writers but adjacent jobs like copywriting. In a TRULY bad faith launch during a fucking WRITERS’ STRIKE, Sudowrite launched an AI story engine that is supposed to help write a full book and it’s just a goddamn mess, especially with the ways they maybe used authors’ work for the AI learning without the writers’ knowledge. Clarkesworld magazine had to cut off their submissions earlier this year because of an influx of AI created stories that were clogging up the system. Ted Chiang wrote an article in the New Yorker about how AI functions in many ways to just make the rich richer and disenfranchise the poor, especially when it is used to try to replace workers in response to unionization (in just another example of how AI can be an amazing tool for certain things, but there are fuckers out there who want to just RUIN everything). The fiction world has been slowly crumbling as book advances are shrinking and the underpaid and over-worked editors have been leaving the publishing industry in droves since the pandemic.

Theatres across the country are also shrinking their seasons due to high costs and the slow recovery from the deep shut down days of the pandemic. We lost so many new play development organizations in the last few years, like the Lark, that it feels like…where do we even go?

I think my big dream had always been that I could make half of my income on writing – so like 20 hours of writing-related things a week and 20 hours doing something else, if we’re thinking in terms of a 40-hour work week, which, let’s be real, I have NEVER experienced since I moved to LA as a 22-year-old and worked a full time office job and waitressed on the weekends. That’s basically been my life (60+ hour weeks) except for maybe that one 9-month period where I was severely under-employed right out of grad school – because, surprise, an MFA makes people less interested in you, it seems. But don’t worry. Those other 20 hours were filled with lots of DREAD.

So I always knew I’d need to be doing something else paired with writing – whether that’s me not believing in my abilities or just knowing that my brain would get bored and would want to be building something else. You can decide.

Honestly, I’m always worried that “writing” has become my entire personality. Except for people who have seen my ghost tattoo and so then they can add “ghost stuff” to the list of my two personality traits.

But yo, we still gotta make rent. So whateva! It’s all COOOLLL, dude.

Currently, I work part time as the publicist at the Department of Theatre & New Dance at Cal Poly Pomona, part time as the Development Manager at Invertigo Dance Theatre, and part time as the Associate Artistic Director at Rogue Artists Ensemble. In addition, I write grants on a freelance basis right now for ELLA (Empowering Leadership in Latina Athletes) and have worked with many other nonprofits as opportunities come up. I’ve done a little teaching and often grade for the dance department at USC. I also pick up gigs doing writing projects or directing projects, but this is less often than I’d like.

I think it’s important to be transparent about how writers actually survive in the world. Being a full time writer is achievable, absolutely, but much of it depends on knowing folks and getting lucky, and luck is hard to come by. I feel lucky that so much of my day job work is in the performing arts world or helping nonprofits in general – especially non-profits where I make art (Rogue), and non-profits that have taught me how art and social justice can be gorgeously intertwined (Invertigo Dance Theatre).

Though I often find myself daydreaming about making a living doing something totally divorced from writing and nonprofits (because it’s hard, yo) – like, I don’t know, working at a plant and garden supply store and just taking care of the plants.

Yes, that was a real option I was considering recently. Seemed nice.

It seems that part of our job as writers is to make it seem like we don’t HAVE a DAY JOB. But this is capitalism and, I’m sorry, the money has to come from somewhere. And if people are full time writers but still aren’t getting a living wage (*cough* Writers’ Strike *cough*) then we have to get over the notion of feeling “lucky” to just be in the room and have to “put up” with an unsustainable life.

So what is YOUR day job?

If you’re like me and are always wondering what that day job should be that will perfectly balance your non-writing interests while also supporting your writing habit, I’ve put together a little quiz for you! It’s embedded below.

But really – what is your day job? (I need ideas). Ha.

Hahahahahahahahahahahaahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaa.

(**cries**)

15 Things to Obsess Over When You Get Rejected from a Writing Thing

by Chelsea Sutton

1.

Read the rejection letter. No, really read it. Read the language. Is it a form rejection or do you think whoever rejected you really thought about each word? Did they copy and paste something an intern wrote, or did their heart break over this letter to you because you were just shy of glory, they fought for you, even, and they are seriously considering whether they can even stick around after this, the travesty of your rejection, but anyway, no, yeah, sincerely, respectfully, best wishes, see you next time.


2.

What time did the rejection letter come in? If it was an email, look at that time stamp. Is it business hours? Or did they schedule it to come late at night when they’d least expect anyone would be looking at email…but of course you were because you’re you, which means always, a little bit, hoping the next thing that’s going to change your life will be sitting in your inbox. So you were in bed or on the toilet and then it was there, staring at you, and you’d definitely look strange if you replied right then so you were forced to become one of those people who don’t react right away, who let things sit for an appropriate amount of time before responding. But do they expect a response? Would that be weird? Do you seem angry if you don’t respond but desperate if you do? Which is better?

3.

If they sent you a letter through the mail, look at the postage. When was it mailed? How long ago did they know you were being rejected and you had to wait for the news, a week or two’s delay like you’re in a Bronte novel (any of the three Brontes). Even your mail carrier knew before you, just by the thinness of the letter, and you wonder if you’ll ever be able to look him in the face again – though of course you don’t even know what he looks like and are pretty sure you have a rotating group of different carriers and you don’t have time to build a relationship with each and every one and figure out who delivered this precious object just so you could avoid them. No, you are a modern woman who is very busy. Whoever the mail carrier is, he could tell it was a rejection by feel, that there’s a single sheet of paper paired with a little return envelope with a plea for a donation. So you clutch the rejection letter to your chest and stare out the window at the storm clouds brewing and wonder if that’s a wet signature at the end of the letter, if they actually signed there name with real regrets, or if they made a stamp for the rejecting person’s signature and that poor intern, again, sat there. Stamping away.

4.

Imagine being a person who is so important, who rejects so many writers from things, that a signature stamp is made. In the early days, maybe their hand cramped from signing so many rejection letters and it shut the entire organization down because of that, so, you know, the stamp.

5.

Share a screenshot of the letter with your group chat. Obsess over how quickly or slowly people respond with condolences, offers to murder the leadership of the rejecting organization, or with positive, affirming advice about you being so close / everything happens for a reason / they seemed to really love you though. Obsess even MORE about those who don’t respond to you at all. Find one true or comforting thing someone says and hold onto those words like they are a dying star.

6.

Did you have an interview before the rejection? Start from number 1 again using your (quite perfect and unbiased) memory to analyze everything said and unsaid in that meeting.

7.

Wonder if there was a mistake. Not a THEM mistake, but a YOU mistake. Did you mess up some small technical thing like leaving your name on something that was supposed to be blind? Did you use Ariel instead of Times New Roman? You’re pretty sure your margins are one inch but maybe you should check. You read once that if your resume is too fancy in its layout, AI at companies won’t read it properly and you never get into an applicant pool to begin with. So that could be the reason. There’s an AI who couldn’t read your CV, or, let’s face it, was just jealous and trashed your application.

8.

It’s time to put it behind you. Look at your spreadsheet that tracks submissions or madly dash through your notes or confirmation emails. What should you be hearing from next? Note a date if they provided one. Make a Google calendar for yourself so you are sure to put time aside to work through this list for the next one.

9.

Let anger fuel a renewed sense of injustice. Gatekeepers are not the answer! It’s time to publish/produce/otherwise realize your work on your own! But you can’t afford it. Okay. So, obsess over your low wages at your day job. Obsess over how many hours you actually work past the number specified in your job description. Those are writing hours they are taking from you! But if you work that much, you should be rich by now right? What IS capitalism anyway?

10.

Start planning the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist revolution. No. Something better. Outside validation is fueled by white supremacy in a false scarcity system that demands perfectionism and productivity. Vow to never feel exactly how the man wants you to feel again.

11.

Read the list of the Chosen Winners/Fellows/Beloveds for this particular writing opportunity once it is announced on Twitter or whatever, and sometimes even before you get the rejection. Why did they get it over you? Obsess over their bios, follow them on Instagram, read every page of their website, try to figure out their age to compare it to everything you’ve been able to accomplish in more (probably) years than them. Wonder what you’ve even be doing with your time.

12.

What even is an artist statement anyway? Maybe you should rewrite yours. Maybe you should radically rewrite it. But what would THEY want to see? Obsess over not obsessing about what they want to see.

13.

Or maybe it’s the play/story/writing. Maybe the play/story/writing just sucks. Read the work over and over. Look for all its flaws like a pageant mom. Yell at the writing for being so imperfect, so ugly, for trying so hard.

14.

On your fifth read, fall in love with the play/story/writing all over again. Your baby deserves this opportunity and so much more. They don’t even understand what they are missing out on. Find the next opportunity. Hell, find 15 new opportunities.

15.

After you send the applications, with your new radical artist statement and proofread writing, obsess over when you’re going to hear from these opportunities. Make sure you have the time open in your calendar in case they invite you, in case you have to travel. Because you will have to. Because you are going to get this. Your play is just that good and your artist statement is FIRE now, so there’s absolutely nothing, not anything, that could go wrong.

Engaging with your past writer self

by Chelsea Sutton

In September, I had the odd experience of seeing a play of mine produced. It was odd because I, frankly, am not used to people wanting to produce my work! It was also odd because I was not in the rehearsal room for this and had minimal interaction with the actors and director outside of a super sweet Zoom chat and a few exchanges with questions about the text. Also it was in Ohio and I’ve never been to Ohio or know anyone really in Ohio so that is odd in itself.

The play was The Graveyard Shift, which I wrote in the playwrights group at Skylight Theatre where we did a workshop of it in their LabWorks festival. That was in 2015.

Dev (Ben Wayne) grabs a nap during his late night shift at Sparky’s Burger Barn in The Graveyard Shift.

I’ve always felt really good about this play. We worked hard on that workshop to make sure it worked as well as it possibly could in that truncated experience. It is a very different piece from a lot of my other work – it’s a straight up comedy that becomes completely absurd, and while it might get dark it ultimately ends in hope. I have a soft spot for it. It was a finalist for the Reva Shiner Comedy Award too! But as many of us know, comedy is not generally in demand as far as new work development goes.

So walking into MADLab in Columbus, OH, I felt I was encountering not only a new company of artists I didn’t know, who had for some reason decided they believed in this play, but also another artist I thought I knew but hadn’t necessarily chatted with in quite some time: the playwright ME of 2015.

Casey (Dana Baumen) inspires her employees in The Graveyard Shift.

I was terrified, to say the least. I was planning to watch all three shows that weekend, but what if I hated it? Not necessarily what the artists were doing, but what if I hated ME and the work I thought was important seven years ago? (HOW IS IT 7 YEARS??)

Marley (Laura Falb) wonders how she ended up here in The Graveyard Shift.

I was surprised that I still liked that play. I mean I had read it since 2015, I have started adapting it into a film, I FELT good about it, but its something else to see it come alive in other artists’ hands, see what people outside of your head do with what you put on the page.

Once I let go of the lonely tension in my body that came from walking into the unknown in a town where I knew no one, I learned a lot sitting in that theatre three days in a row. I had notes for my past writer self – trims, tighter jokes, moments where I could feel myself trying to PROVE I was a playwright with deep thoughts, of course. But I learned that 1) I have grown as a writer and a critic of my own work (there have been doubts), 2) I could see the shifts of comedic timing and tone over the three nights which could help me strengthen certain structures on the page, and 3) I don’t want to ever feel as if I have to PROVE I am a playwright again.

(Also I re-learned to NOT read reviews – the one review we got loved everything about the production except my writing, which I processed before seeing the second show by crying a little and then watching Hoarders on repeat.)

The Robber (Colleen Underwood) hides in The Graveyard Shift.

There was this time in my playwriting life when I felt like I had to continually prove I was a playwright, that I deserved to be in whatever room I was in (however insignificant). I felt watched and judged and there wasn’t a ton of room to not get things right (and I often didn’t get things right). I had about 7 years there when I was writing 2 new plays a year. I was trying to keep up with what felt like the industry demanded for creation, and for myself to keep growing with each play and prove over an over that I can do this.

I recently went back to the last play I wrote in my third year at the Skylight PlayLab in 2016. Again, one I had fond memories of, which felt like a play that was inching toward some “voice” that I was maybe developing then. But looking at it again, I felt this deep sickness in my stomach. More so than The Graveyard Shift, I felt like this play was trying to be ALL things: a comedy, a horror, and a “serious” play. Every page, every sentimental monologue felt like the playwright ME of 2016 saying “hey look world – do you see? See how I’m writing the shit out of this play!” I was trying so hard with it. I know people responded to it at the time when we had our reading. But when I read it now, all I see is a writer who feels like she’s maybe realizing what she wants to write, but doesn’t know how to do it in a way that feels serious enough or important enough for Theatre to care.

The year before that messy play I had created The Graveyard Shift and got it pretty close to production ready in a short period of time. But it was a comedy and folks were confused. It is the one play of mine that is unapologetically itself. But for whatever reason I felt I had to follow that up with something more serious, a play that really had to say something. And everything I had to say didn’t feel good enough.

After 2016, most of my energy went into writing immersive work, going to an MFA to work on my fiction, starting to direct again after taking a break in 2014, and learning audio and screenwriting. Plays have been hard to write over the last few years because I’m still in the mindset of proving something. Of needing every play to be all things to everyone.

So while I have notes for my 2015 ME, I feel like she had more notes to give to NOW ME. Twist!

“Remember when this was fun?” she said. “Remember how you channeled your feelings into these characters and it felt real and you fell in love with them?” she said. “Remember how by writing broken characters in the way that you are broken and then falling in love with them while you see them on stage is a kind of way of falling in love with yourself? And that maybe you haven’t felt love for yourself in a while?” she said.

Here’s the real thing I learned, though.

After the last show I saw, I got to talk a little more with the actors and director. And I heard different ways they each needed to do this play at this moment in time. This play reflected their lives and emotions and worries in ways that 2015 ME couldn’t have predicted – with thousands of miles and seven years between us. It’s not a perfect play and I will never be a perfect playwright or perhaps never even a good one – but at the very least this play right now offered a joy and a balm to the artists and maybe some of the audience too. And definitely for me. And maybe that’s enough. That’s all we’re trying to do in the end, right?

I didn’t think this is where I was going with this blog. I thought I’d just write a nice little recap of a production and talk about how Karma handed my ass to me by making me slip and fall on the condiments and crap that littered the floor by the end of the play as a kind of punishment from the stage management gods, or how I’d successfully both humiliated myself and gotten a bad review within 36 hours of being in Ohio…

But instead, I guess, I should just shut the fuck up and go write some broken characters to fall in love with.

the stage management gods will fuck you up.

An Unfinished List of Lessons from a Writing Workshop In Which I Was Broken and then Rebuilt

One week ago I returned home from a six-week short fiction writing workshop in San Diego. For six whole weeks out of my life, I was basically a full time writer. Except for one or two day job things that trickled in, I mostly cut myself off from the real world, friends and family. While I’ve gone to one- or two-week workshops before, and even had a one-month residency once, I have never experienced what it is like to actually and truly have writing be the priority of my day, every day. That in fact it was expected of me to show up to the page, and it affected those around me if I didn’t.

I was in workshop for 20 hours a week, was close-reading up to 100,000 words a week of my peers’ writing, and writing a new short story a week – which would be read and talked about for a full hour not only by the 17 other writers but by the successful and highly acclaimed faculty (which changed from week to week). If I wasn’t doing any of those things, I was in craft lectures, business lectures, public readings, or one-on-ones with faculty. A friend and I also tried to find a few hours to work on our novels together.

Now, this model is not sustainable, of course, and I’m not even sure if there’s an equivalent that would work for playwriting. I realize this is a playwriting blog and not a short fiction blog…but one writer’s problems are all writer’s problems.

Because I’ve been home a week and have not written a word. My brain has be sputtering trying to understand why I need to be in meetings about fundraisers and marketing and grants and not writing a new ghost story. I’m back in a world in which no one cares if I write today or tomorrow or this week or this month. A world where I have to actively make rent. Half of me is back on my routine bullshit, the other half is asking – but…what about the writing?

What does prioritizing your writing even look like?

I wanted this blog to be a “here is a list of things I learned at my writers workshop” kind of thing but…I’ve only been home a week. And I just don’t know if I can articulate it exactly yet. Some of the lessons won’t sink in for a little while.

But I’ll tell you this.

In week two, I was basically told I was too weird in every sense of the word to really have a career. All of my arrogance and confidence was beaten out of me, and I was a bloody mess on the floor, feeling like I had wasted my life. I used that energy to write one of the stronger stories of mine at the workshop in a kind of fever dream for week 3 – refusing to stop writing for fear that I wouldn’t be able to pick it up again, that I had to see it through otherwise I’d talk myself out of even trying. I lived in that terror for the next three weeks. Worried that the things I was interested in exploring, experimenting and fucking around with were stupid and embarrassing.

If I was torn completely down in week two, then in week six I was built back up again. I wrote quite possibly the most vulnerable story I’ve ever written in a fit of rage (with myself, with the world, with how I’m perceived as a person, a woman, a woman-writer) and it was also a fusion of my fiction and playwriting life and voice. It was completely me.

And I walked away from week six not feeling like that weirdness is a weakness and an air I was putting on, but if focused well and layered with truth, it is my superpower.

So, if I had to offer a few loose words of wisdom, or just nuggets of a jumbled mind that may or may not be useful to you, this is what I’d write down:

  1. If you’re scared to write something, that means you should. Sometimes that means you have to write in a fever dream, straight through to the end, to burst through the dam you’ve built between what you think your writing should be and what it wants to be.
  2. Prioritizing writing looks different for everyone. But it deserves it. You deserve it.
  3. Find your superpower. This is stolen wisdom from our week six teachers Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe but…if you’re good at language and interesting characters and structure, it’s okay for your plots to be more basic and straightforward. If plot is your thing, it’s okay for the other stuff to be straightforward. Everyone has a superpower.
  4. Everything will always seem more important than the writing. Everything else is shouting for your attention, everything feels like an emergency. But be careful not to hitch yourself to other people’s emergencies. If you’re not discerning, if you default into a state of reaction, then everything else will feel like the most important thing in the world, and your writing, sorry, will never scream as loud as that email from your day job. Do I mean you should drop obligations or showing up as a sibling/parent/friend/worker/etc? Of course not. But if you’re only reacting to others, then you are helping them build what is important to them and what is important to you can get lost, can become background.
  5. What I’m saying is…internalize your commitment.
  6. Procrastination happens when we want to avoid negative emotions. So time management is often more about emotion management.
  7. We will never be satisfied. That’s part of the job.

Anyway, that’s more words than I’ve written in a week. I’m exhausted.

This is the blessed unrest.

Strange List of Writer Phobias

as completely made up by Chelsea Sutton but also like….not really made up?

agnoiaphobia n. the fear that everyone else knows how to do this but you, that there was a day in your writing education (whatever that might look like) where they laid out the fundamentals of a writing life, helped your peers define that elusive “practice” always asked about in residency apps, ran them through how to cleverly answer the question “what are you working on right now” without sounding like a rambling idiot, how to keep moving forward without feeling like you’re standing still, and no one shared this knowledge with you and are, in fact, laughing at you right now; from the Greek word ágnoia meaning ignorance.

frausphobia n. the fear that you may never write another good and/or acceptable play (short story/novel/screenplay) again because you are a damn fraud and have been coasting on luck this whole time; from the Latin word fraus meaning a delusion, a fraud.

miseratiophobia n. the fear that everyone knows you’re actually not very good but collectively decide to humor you, to throw you a bone every once in a while like the stray dog that you are, because it can’t hurt, they decide, because she tries so hard, just look at her little hands, typing away, how adorable; from the Latin word miseratio meaning pity, compassion.

telosphobia n. the fear that you don’t know what success is as a writer, or at least what it looks like for you, that you have wanted to be a writer for (however long), but the more you learn about this life, the more you run the numbers of possible (productions, publications, staffing) and all the money that comes out of it (very little) the more it all seems impossible, even very silly, to think that being a “writer” is all you can be, that being a writer is actually being a Hyphenate (writer-teacher, writer-accountant, writer-marketer), which is fine, you guess, but will you be happy if you write your little plays that no one sees as you work at the Bed Bath & Beyond (beloved by staff and customers alike) or do you really need to get that Oscar to feel worthy, you greedy writer, you?; from the Greek word telos meaning end, purpose or goal.

anyparxiasphobia n. the fear that when you get that Oscar it won’t be enough either, that nothing is really enough, that life is not long enough, and also too long, and this desire for more is simultaneously your greed and also your complete infatuation with Life and those in it, and so you hold onto everything and probably cry a little every day, and maybe that holds you back, but you also know that whatever you might feel getting an Oscar will pale in comparison to how you felt as your grandmother read the little story you wrote in crayon about the Easter bunny and smiled and scooped you some ice cream, because damnit she’s not here to hear your acceptance speech so, like, what does it even matter anyway?; from the Greek word anyparxía meaning nothingness.

kenophobia n. the fear that you won’t become who you thought you’d become in time to share that with your (parents, aunts, other important people) before they are gone, before you can say do you see – i made good choices, before you can say see – i’m okay, before you no longer have anyone watching your life from afar and its just you, making yourself happy, which is totally and utterly not possible; from the Greek prefix keno meaning empty.

anonymosphobia n. the fear that you don’t know who you’re trying to become or want to become and you might just stay the person you are right now and, frankly, you’re not sure how you feel about that; from the Greek word anónymos meaning nameless.

hamartiaphobia n. the fear that your one chance or shot was handed to you already in a moment that perhaps you can or cannot pinpoint, but that you didn’t take it or it was taken from you, and now that chance is gone forever, never to return; from the Greek word hamartia meaning to miss the mark, most often used in reference to tragedy.

vetulaphobia n. the fear that you’re already too old to do this; from the Latin word vetula meaning old woman.

nigomaephobia n. the fear that you have nothing to say, actually, and the simple act of even thinking about writing is taking up space for more worthy voices; from the Greek word pnigomai meaning choke.

penthosphobia n. the fear that this is actually what being a writer is, and now you have to deal with it; from the Greek word penthos meaning grief or lamentation, also the name of the ancient Greek God, who was late and got the cold leftovers.

Be a fool.

By Chelsea Sutton

My turn at spewing words on this blog always seems to hit during weeks when something in my world or the world at large is radically shifting. Perhaps that’s a false correlation, but my memory insists that is correct. And it is right at least half of the time.

This past week I had my first real whirlwind of non-stop in-person theatre activity. I spent Saturday through Tuesday in close quarters with cast and creative team for filming, audio recording, and photography for the immersive postal play I’m directing, Welcome to Meadowlark Falls: The Very Merry Christmas Contest. I spent Wednesday seeing Hamilton at the Pantages after 3 reschedules over the last two years. And Thursday through Saturday rehearsing and producing a live haunt in Little Tokyo at East West Players with Rogue Artists Ensemble for a narrative app I co-wrote, Kaidan Project: Alone.

I’m coming out of that week in a reflective mode. I had bursts of wonder and wondering during that time. Wonder at our ability to create stories out of cardboard and sweat. And wondering at…why am I doing this? Am I actually, even, good at this?

To be an artist, you have to, in many ways, be a fool. You have to be foolish enough to think that you can make a living at this – or, better yet, a life. You have to be foolish enough to think that you have something to say and talent enough to pull it off. You have to be foolish enough to sweep past disappointments and head onto the next batch as if nothing could touch you.

But there has to be a limit to the foolishness. I think that is what we’ve all collectively pondered over the last year. The foolishness that makes us think that we have to break our backs and neglect our wellbeing for the notion of a dream. The foolishness that hopes the same leadership that has hurt you in the past is going to change their ways, that makes you go in circles trying the same strategies over and over expecting something new. The foolishness that makes us think we have to pay our dues for 30 years only to be met with gatekeepers that never intended for us to enter, ever.

I’m a fool. For sure.

Last December, when my blog time came around, it happened the week my grandmother died, after she and I both contracted COVID from the same person.

Just before September 11 this past year, I went to her house for the last time. I went late at night after work and traffic. I lit a purple candle and brought a picture of us in the house. The house was completely empty. My father had redone it over the last 6 months and in many ways it no longer looked like the home of my childhood. But something fresh. And new. Something the light could more easily reach.

My last photo of the house.

I stayed for maybe an hour. Sitting and thinking and crying. Walking from room to room, kissing my hand and touching it to the walls. I tried to say goodbye to every inch.

I felt very foolish. Like an idiot. But I knew I had to say goodbye in this way. I knew I had to feel foolish to feel anything at all.

And if I’m really honest, once I walked in, I didn’t feel foolish anymore. I only felt like I was coming home.

My playwright brain always attaches to PLACE. How it transforms itself. How it transforms who we are. How every house is haunted in one way or another.

Returning to theatre feels like walking into that empty house. It is the same, yet not. I am mourning parts of myself while having hope for something new. I am trying to make space for what is next.

My love is like a haunted house. I don’t know how to love any other way.

I am a collector of words. I have a folder on my desktop with saved words that I stumble across. This blog has turned into a kind of meditation, so, I thought sharing some of my collection might help you, as they have helped me.

First…

This poem by Caitlin Seida

…And then the queen Rachel Elizabeth Cargle….

….and this meditation on grief….

…And finally, the late and great Anthony Bourdain…

Be a fool.

To Not Hiding & Vulnerability Nuggets

by Chelsea Sutton

I don’t know about you, but I write fiction and plays because it allows me to hide.

I seldom write non-fiction (this blog not withstanding). When I do, it is usually couched in humor and non sequiturs and other distractions so that you won’t look at the big VULNERABILITY NUGGET dropped in the middle.

HERE’S YOUR DISTRACTION:

https://twitter.com/IcelandFoods/status/1315989798998413313?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1315989798998413313%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Ftimesofindia.indiatimes.com%2Flife-style%2Ffood-news%2Fbritish-company-launches-chicken-nugget-into-space-netizens-are-excited%2Farticleshow%2F78702801.cms

But during the pandemic, I started a little project with a couple friend. Yes. It’s a podcast. Because everyone has a podcast now. I’m so basic.

My new headshot. Super basic.
(Are you distracted still?)

The thing with the podcast is that it is NOT fiction. It’s three of us talking about our REAL opinions about subjects that affect us, and particularly women, and how we live as humans from day to day.

So like…I have to be me.

I struggled with this, and desperately wanted some FORMAT to help STRUCTURE MY CHARACTER or come up with a hook that allowed me to hide.

But I don’t get to hide much. Only really as far as I do research or drop little tidbits of knowledge I’ve collected somewhere, somehow.

Usually when I’m writing a play or a story, when I feel like I’m showing too much, I can have a ghost or monster or some other weird thing pop in. As a friend once said, if this is a Chelsea Sutton play, where are the dead people?

Though I think what I’ve really discovered is that the old Flannery O’Connor quote about not knowing what you think about a thing until you write it out….is definitely true for me. I didn’t know I had such strong opinions about certain things until I was tasked with being in a 45 minute discussion about it.

Anyway, I recommend sometimes being vulnerable. Launch that vulnerability nugget into space, my friend.

If you want to listen, the podcast is called THE NICE GIRLS. It’s on Spotify and Apple Podcasts and all that stuff.

Here’s a trailer from our episode 8 about FAILURE. Which I know a lot about.

Look at me. Not distracting you.

No. No no no don’t look at the VULNERABILITY NUGGET.

Damnit.