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.