How to Fail at Playwriting: Chapter 11: Contests and Festivals

Don't forget to read the fine print.
Don’t forget to read the fine print.

So by this point, you have a completed, polished script that is quite possibly the most brilliant thing ever. Awesome! Or maybe it’s sort-of okay. Yay! Or perhaps it’s just some dialog strewn like dead logs across a trail in a forest no one owns, so why pay a log picker-upper to come in and clean up? Why not just leave them to soften and decay with the passing seasons, composting back into the weather and enriching it with their dormant barky-ness? It’s time to send out your work!

First, search the web for the many, many contests and festivals that feature new work by living playwrights. Remember that term: new work. It’s something you should start saying instead of a play. It sounds more important, like you’re working on a cure for something, doesn’t it?

Many contests and festivals charge a small fee. Don’t begrudge this. It costs a lot to get everything processed and reviewed and responded to. Even if the readers are volunteers, those other people who do stuff like  advertise the contest usually have to be paid.

Insider tip: As a volunteer reader myself, I try to read my minimum number of submissions at the last minute, perhaps at the end of the day or when I’m completely frustrated by my actual job and need a brief distraction. “Try and hold my interest,” I tell the submission. “You’ve got fifteen seconds.” So take all you’ve learned in previous chapters about character and story arc and show-don’t-tell and pacing and stuff, and jam it all into the first half-page, because that’s probably all the time you have. As John Irving said, “try to tell the whole novel in the first line.”

What is it you want to say? Some popular themes include “Love is elusive.” “War is bad.” “Life is funny and the goofiest things can happen.” Whatever your flavor, consider shoehorning it into the first line or two of dialog, like this:

Night. A hot-air balloon. Joshua nurses his imaginary child. Gomesh helps.
Joshua: War is bad.
Gomesh: The goofiest things happen.
They implode.

That way, even if your reader gives you a pass immediately, as they’re likely to do with a whole pile of submissions waiting and dinner not even started, you’ll know you are sharing your-deeply felt vision with another human soul.
Go for it!

Takeaway: The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but it ends any time you plop down and turn on Netflix.

Othello Explains It All For You

Not a Cheeto in sight.

It’s not so much that I thought she was cheating. Even though, okay, I guess I kind of thought that. But I do realize that I didn’t know it in that way where you feel sure enough to just come out and ask someone. Even though sometimes, when it’s that moment where you’re about to ask, and you can feel them willing you not to ask, you can feel in that space between you, the silent pushing back of the question, doesn’t that usually tell you something?

But it wasn’t that so much, because that on its own we could have overcome. No, it was the knowing that even if she hadn’t actually cheated, even if she hadn’t, there was this whole universe of not going on beside me. And would be for eternity, and it drove me insane. It’s not fair. It’s like a game the whole world is playing on me and I will not have it. I just won’t. So there.

You might think that’s petulance, contrariness, but it was the rawest of pain. I felt so alone, dropped on this earth a loner instead of point man in a family, a team, a cluster. I’m jealous of sisters who cuddle on the couch, or friends who cuddle like sisters, easy with each other in the way of puppies. I’m jealous of easy loves and sloppy families ambling down the street from the 7-Eleven, sucking Big Gulps and passing a bag of Cheetos back and forth. Unhealthy yes, but together in their orange fingers and idle crunching. 

I did it because of the fingers. I did it because of the space.  

Day 11: Prairie Island

Nap bench from Day 1
Remember this bench? It hasn’t changed.

When Dave was learning choreography for The Jewels, he started out being able to remember it all in his head. Then he wrote out notes for himself, and suddenly started forgetting things. “I shouldn’t have written it down,” he said at first. But after a few days, the movements were fully back. My theory was that the info started in his front mind, then moved to his back mind, and the brief uncertainty was when it was in transit. That’s how I feel about yesterday. It felt like my being at Ragdale transitioned from the front of my mind to the back.

I know that things happened but I’m not sure in what order. I know I wrote two new scenes, walked in the blackened prairie and into the woods, burst into tears over a character I don’t even like, laughed hysterically with Dave because I started calling him, hung up on the fourth ring, and then sent him one of those auto-response texts saying “Call you later” when he called back immediately. It reminded me of a college friend who said, “I just called to tell you I can’t talk right now. I’m extremely busy.”

I know that I went into town and bought a get-well card for a friend, and walked into and out of some stores without buying anything, and had a great dinner with friends I somehow didn’t know a month ago. I know the night ended with a bunch of us sitting in the living room, writing or reading or in one case shopping for a fridge. But the “at Ragdale” part, which was once front and center, has moved to a different part of my brain.

The other night, we tramped in a group from room to room, “nosing” as one writer put it. There wasn’t much to observe about the writers’ rooms beyond the space itself – “oh you got a private bath” or “I love that chair, desk, view.” In the composer’s studio we got to hear a tiny, tantalizing snippet of one piece. But in the artists’ studios, we could see whole bodies of work – or at least as whole as they are halfway into the month.

I got to see sets of painted surfaces and found objects by one artist, large canvases by another, and heavily textured and painted collages by another. And I thought, so this is their Ragdale. This is what they’ve been doing in the stillness of this place with the maybe not-so-pretentious-after-all “Quiet please, artists at work” sign out front.

That same night, or maybe a different night, I overheard a writer telling someone a favorite quote from Stephen Sondheim, something like “art is not about perfection, it’s about making choices.” In each studio I saw something that seemed to speak directly to me. I know everyone won’t feel that way. Some will love and some will hate and some will ignore them, but each is perfect in its expression of choices or maybe its choice of expressions. The world is more fully realized because they exist.


Anyone need 80 8"x3"by3" boxes?
Anyone need 80 8″x3″x3″ boxes?

Dave is talking to himself as he practices. “Oh, Dave.” Then he plays some more, then “No…no.” It sounds strangely detached, like he’s not surprised, just disappointed.

Django is in her bed. Her new portrait is on the mantel. We picked it up at the memorial service for Fern today, because the artist drove in from Indy for it, and she’d also finished the painting.

It’s lovely, especially around the muzzle. The body looks a little too brawny, like the woodcarving. But it’s a far cry from Marmaduke. And the eyes are very, very Django.

At the service, one of Fern’s neighbors told a story about how her dog had swatted a baby bunny in the back yard, and the woman called Fern crying, “What should I do?” Fern came right over, and held the bunny in her hands as it died. She talked to it quietly, saying “It’s all right.” The woman said Fern had the most beautiful hands, and I could see them as she spoke, just holding the bunny very calmly, like everything was happening just as it should.

Another neighbor said they had a feral cat and Fern was the only one who could get near it. Once she sat for an hour, combing it.

Dave seems a bit happier with his playing. He just said, “Hm.”

Analogy unfinished, analogy overexplained

It’s accidentally upside down.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t come back here, to a bar created by a friend but then sold to a stranger. No matter why or how it was sold, it just wouldn’t feel right. Disloyal. But my brother is playing guitar here, something he doesn’t often do, and family trumps friends, so here I am, sitting on one of the microsuede banquettes, so comfy, staring at this beautiful room.

Chandeliers dot the high ceiling. A magnificent blue oil painting is propped casually on the fireplace mantel. Originally he was going to put a mirror there, but when he found the painting it was just too perfect. Across from me, a huge blue built-in holds wine bottles and almost blends into the muted green of the walls, softening the urban feel, making it all French and luxey. It strikes me that the walls don’t care who painted them. They’re just here being beautiful.

Yesterday was mosaic class. Random people drifted in just before and just after 9am, new to each other, new to the space, new to the class. Where should I sit, at which of the many square, brown-paper-covered tables, who looks friendly, should I sit alone, is that only remaining stool too close to the next one?

I took the stool at the table closest to the cookies. Another woman sat next to me, after pulling one stool away so she could space out all the stools on our side a little farther apart. I watched her squeeze antibacterial gel onto her hands. Another woman sat down across from us. She cracked jokes about her Diet Coke addiction, getting lost on the way here, and how she was probably the only sucker to pay full price for this workshop. “I did, too,” I said, the only other non-Groupon.

Did you find the analogy? See, all these random-seeming human actions were like the random-seeming bits of glass we’d soon be cutting and arranging on our little training tiles. You watch someone placing a little green tile next to a yellow one, then removing it and trying an orange one, then going back to the yellow but snipping it in two, there that’s better…and it doesn’t seem to make sense. But when the whole piece is assembled, set in black or gray or white thinset, the pattern emerges.

By noon, we were all chatting away as if we’d known each other forever, each table of people like each tile on the table like each piece of glass on a tile, each with its own logic which is revealed in relation to the whole. The antibacterial woman works with “lots of sick people,” as she put it, so the gel makes perfect sense. After 25 years, the jokester quit smoking a few months ago, so she’s taking all kinds of classes “to keep my hands busy,” crochet and pottery and now mosaic, and the costs add up. I skipped breakfast because I have trouble being somewhere at 9am, so the cookies made me feel “safe.” Nothing random at all, except the last set of quotation marks.

The password is Perspective

skyline through a window

The benefit was grand. I heard there were celebrities there but I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t say for sure. Also, when your TV source is Netflix on Demand your celeb meter is skewed. I’m pretty sure no one from Battlestar or Slings & Arrows passed by.

More importantly, my dress was fab and I met someone who got me thinking about having a good death. About how the desire to die well, whatever that means to you, recasts every moment of your life starting now. And yes, I know I’ve heard that before, but like a MacDonalds ad, you have to see it at least three times before you robot in and buy your whatever-it-is-in-a-cup.

Talking with this new and interesting person made me realize that I’ve always assumed the appropriate pre-death mindset will kick in as my body nears the gate (assuming I receive advance notice). But this person told stories of people going kicking and screaming. Not good deaths. As far as we know. When my mom neared death, she spent weeks talking about how she wished she had the faith she’d always acted like she had in church. She was afraid, and she asked everyone from the priest to the neighbors how to get real faith. But in the day or two before she went, something changed. She grew ready. Her fear seemed to diminish as she looked closer into death.

A bunch of the speeches last night were about artistic community and how it’s all about the love. Then afterward, there were off-the-record stories of snippy comments and hurt feelings. All the same cast of characters. I think everyone was telling the truth as they saw it at that moment.

The benefit was held in an industrial-chic spot with an industrial-chic view of the skyline. Or you could consider it a depressing view. Or you could figure it was an irrelevant view, compared with the absolute, surely absolute, perfection of my dress.

Grumpy gets a surprise

photo in a frame
Zoe approved. As usual.

I was working, grumpily, in my office. The air conditioner was trying to push some cool into my back porch office with the help of a fan, but still the air was heavy. Zoe the visiting dog was asleep on my feet under the desk.

Zoe is a real dog. She could give Django lessons, if Django had any interest in learning. She wags her tail when you talk to her, greets all strangers except for mail carriers with equanimity, likes to be petted, nudges your left hand when you’re only petting her with your right. She likes to be in the room, in the very spot, where you are, and when you accidentally step on her because you forgot she was there, and you curse, “For God’s sake Zoe, move!” she wags her tail.

So when the front doorbell rang, I backed up my chair, bumped into Zoe, cursed, and patted her affable head in exasperation. “Zoe, geez.” She wagged her tail and followed me downstairs as Django watched from her chair in another room. I kept Zoe from eating the UPS man, who handed me a box. It was from Christina, a manager at the company we freelance for.

Why would Christina be sending me a package? She’s not working on our current project. We hardly even talk lately, except when I send her a particularly good outtake from a recording session or she sends me a link to new pictures she’s taken. I love her photography. Simple, striking images of details from her life. Flowers, trains, bits of statues. I even love the pictures of her little boys, whom I’ve never met and have no emotional connection to. But these aren’t precious moments sort of pictures, they’re just moments in time. Two kids in masks, turning. A boy inexplicably crying over a plate of waffles. I can relate to that.

I’ve asked Christina when she’s going to start selling her work and she’s replied that the pros don’t exactly welcome people like her. “I read a stream over the weekend about how all these ‘moms with entry level dSLRs from Costco’ are ruining ‘real’ photographers’ businesses.”

“Well, I’m not a pro, I’m your audience,” I said. “When you’re ready, I want to buy some prints.”

The box was large and flat and light. I both hoped for and felt guilty about what might be in it. A gift of photos! The first was a square unframed photo of a tree, taken during a tornado. At first glance, the tree looks out of focus, just big and round and fuzzy. Then you look closer and realize the fuzziness is the movement of leaves, branches, and trunk of the ancient tree. There’s nothing else in the picture, just the moving tree, which makes it an oddly quiet shot.

The other was some kind of metal angel or cherub against the sky. I’m not big on angel pictures, but this one is different. The figure seems somehow compassionate but also remote and removed. I’d admired it on her site, and it was even more beautiful matted and framed and held in my hands as I paraded it around the house, going, “I got a present, I got a present.” Zoe was ecstatic, and wagged her tail at every wall against which I held my new picture. We finally decided on the front hall landing with the old green flocked wallpaper.

There was also a note in the box. It said, “Enjoy. Love, the mom with the camera from Costco.”

Note: You can see more of Christina’s photos on her Flickr site.