The honeymoon period after finishing the first draft of a brand new play is one of the finest rewards of writing. It’s a delicious breakfast-in-bed-on-the-balcony champagne-and-chocolate-strawberries first-scene-of-Barefoot-in-the-Park-the-movie-version mashup wall of euphoria.
This period is flush with all kinds of wonder. First there’s the wonder of sudden weightlessness. “I’m done, I’m done!” is all I need say, and the tightness lifts from my shoulders, just as it did when I pushed away from my desk after typing “End play.”
It actually takes a few tries, every few hours, at saying “I’m done!” before it feels true. Each time, I re-investigate the feeling of not having this thing to write. I examine the new spaciousness between my ears, and give myself permission to feel giddy. “I’m done!”
Then there’s the wonder of leisure. I can go to a play or go have a drink or do whatever I want without seeing the unfinished script waiting, lurking, threatening to disappear if the head and tail don’t get sewn on soon.
During this time, the play is perfect. No one has said “I don’t get it” or “I like where it’s going” or “Have you read such-and-such? You should, it’s very similar.” No one’s said they want to know more about x or less about y, or smiled in a manner that says this is exactly the kind of play I tend to write. As if it’s any easier to write the kind of play a person tends to write than any other kind.
In these first few days, I physically feel the wonder of something brand new existing in the world. I imagine other parts of the invisible world shifting to make room. The world didn’t ask for this. If asked, it might say the last thing it needed was another new play. We bring the world our offerings, these detailed instructions for performance that are somewhere between blueprint and poetry, for reasons I’m still not clear on.
The fact that I’m even thinking about this means it’s time to pack my things, maybe take one selfie on the balcony, and check out of the luxury hotel. I might have stolen a washcloth, so I need to walk quickly in case the maids notice something’s amiss and call down to the front desk, but they wouldn’t do that would they? Would they? For one washcloth? Okay fine it was a hand towel but whatever. What kind of cheapshit hotel is this where they’re like counting washcloths? No way am I leaving the four stars. It’s a slight relief: The honeymoon is over.
On January 1 of last year, Toots and I started a writing game. We’d spent most of New Year’s Eve watching Slings & Arrows, which is not a prerequisite for the game, but it helps.
Materials needed: phones, notebooks or laptops, a timer (see phones)
We could have spent the day watching Season 3, but unspoken between us was the knowledge that watching TV, no matter how good, was not the way we wanted 2015 to start. Django and I walked Toots to the train, and New Years festivities were officially over.
Either player can start the game. Toss a coin maybe.
After the dog walk, I wanted to lay on the couch and read. Instead, I got my notebook and a timer, and decided to write for 20 minutes, using the word “Frame” as a prompt.
Player 1 chooses a word and texts it to Player 2.
Set your timer for 20 minutes.
Write the word at the top of the page.
Continue writing anything at all until the timer goes off.
When you’re finished, text “Done” to your partner.
When your partner is finished, they text “Done” to you.
After both players have texted “Done,” Player 2 chooses the next day’s word and texts it to you.
When I was finished, I texted Toots to tell her how my new year was going. She liked “Frame” and wrote for 20 minutes too.
“Want to do this again tomorrow” she asked.
“O-okay,” I said.
So she texted me a word for the next day: “Challenge.”
Rules and Advisements:
Wait your turn: Don’t text your partner the next day’s word, even if YOU’RE done, until they’re done too. With the exception of…
Doubling down: If you absolutely cannot write on a given day, you may “Double down” the next day. Text this to your partner, and send or receive the next day’s word. On the next day, write for 20 minutes per word.
Tripling Down: See above. You’re getting into dangerous territory, but it is possible to get back on track. Don’t give up.
On a dog walk yesterday, I lamented to Dave about how much I miss this game. Not that I wasn’t relieved for it to be over – a whole year of doing this has its ups and downs, and it’s nice to be able to freely journal again, without the word “Level” (Jan 22) or “Arriviste” (July 19) or “Cope” (Nov 11) staring at you from the top of the page. But I loved sharing the ups and downs with Toots. And completing 365 days of shared words felt amazing.
Set your phone on silent if you don’t like getting texts at 3am.
After listening to me alternately whine about missing the game and celebrate the fact that I never again have to write about “Suppository” (Dec 30), Dave decided that he wanted to play this game. He called a friend who said, “Sure.” They had to double down immediately to catch up to properly start from January 1st, but they’re on track now to do it COMPLETELY WRONG. They’re writing too much. They’re texting each other every twenty minutes with a new word. I think they’re on like Word 4 and it’s only January third. They’re going to burn out! But I’m keeping my mouth shut. It’s none of my business.
Look up the word before setting your timer. Even if it’s a simple word. You might learn something.
Type if you don’t want to write. Any technology is fine.
But why a pencil? Who would write for twenty minutes with a pencil?
On today’s dog walk, Dave told me a bunch of interesting things about “Sewer.” Apparently it’s related to “Sewing” and “Serving,” which connects to “Steward.”
I might choose “Steward” today if I were still playing with Toots. But our game is complete.
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.
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.
Yes I felt kind of silly, going to the rehearsal of a one-minute play I’d written. But the director had invited all the playwrights in my clump. And when I showed up, an hour late thanks to getting sucked back into work after a month away, I was indeed the only playwright there. But the director and actors welcomed me, and sat me down, and although I felt a little foolish, over-eager, definitely not the oh-so-busy-professional who doesn’t have time for such trifles, I was also happy not to be. Happy to remember I don’t need to be. Fine just as I am, etc. AND, I got to watch and be part of their rehearsal process. Which means I got another free lesson in acting and directing.
When it came to my piece and I pulled out my script which I had completely rewritten on the el ride over, oh I’m cringing now remembering this, she listened or at least looked like she was listening to my longwinded explanation of the changes which were probably longer than the play itself – “If it weren’t in a clump of other plays about weather it would be fine, but since everything’s about weather maybe it’s too on the nose and could be more about the relationship? And also I could cut a few lines? Or maybe it’s fine as it is? I’m sorry, I know it’s just a minute, do you want to just not look at these?”
Oh, she did not say, Thank God only one playwright showed up. She did not huff, Why are you cutting into my precious rehearsal time with your needy crazy talk? “Of course,” she said, “Why don’t we just read both versions?”
“Oh, that would be great!” She didn’t seem fazed by the fact that this might be impossible, since I had the only copy of the new version and it was illegible. This puzzled me, because I would not have been able to proceed without first solving this logistical problem. And because the solution would be a pain in the ass — have me tell everyone the changes and mess up their copies with changes that might not get made? — I would have been annoyed, and I would have had to show everyone how much effort it took to figure this out and what a good director I was for making it work.
Instead, she had the cast read the first version, and they were hilarious. The play worked just fine as it was. The director had already given them a concept based on the original script, and they ran with it, and it was all good. No changes needed. “I just want to change these two lines,” I said.
“Love it,” she said, “Actors, we have a couple of line changes.”
And later, when the piece was on its feet, we were able to cut the last line because the actors’ performances had made it irrelevant. I love watching talented people in action. It just makes me glad to be alive.
When I first told people I was going to Ragdale, they said things like, “Hope your class goes well!”
“Well, it’s not really a class.”
“Oh. Well, hope your retreat is relaxing!”
“It’s not really a retreat.”
“Oh. Well, hope you have a good workshop!”
“It’s not really a workshop.”
“Oh. Well, what is it?”
“It’s an artist’s colony.”
“I have no idea.”
Now that it’s ending, I realize that all those people were right. Ragdale is a class in persistence, a retreat from familiar routines, and a workshop designed around whatever we choose to share with each other. The citizens of this colony change from session to session, but the underlying principles of respect and support ensure its success.
Another thing people kept saying was, “Well, have fun!”
“It’s really not about having fun,” I said. And was wrong again. Working all day on my writing, while being handed a gracious home, beautiful surroundings, and delicious meals with interesting people, is actually quite a lot of fun. The deadline for next year is May 15, people. www.ragdale.org. Get on it.
by Beth, Lila, MT and Patricia
Clouds no I was kidding
Ow my toe
Bad bad toe
Ibuprofen eight hundred
thousand. Plus whisky. Feel fine.
Sunrise cloud Kafka
Makes my whirly word
Blossom. Friendship. Consultation.
I leave the prairie with the trill of victory.
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.
Yesterday I was finished with the play. I’d gotten to a point of hating it that felt complete. I sent it to a friend, thus making it her problem, and prepared myself for a new something.
First, I finished watching the Bergen DVD someone lent me. Then I took a scrap of paper with some notes scribbled on it from an old project, and ceremoniously carried it to the huge bonfire pile behind the house. Next, I changed clothes several times, looking for the right thing to wear for a walk to Lake Michigan. What IS the right thing? Packed a notebook because I planned to find a place to start writing the new something.
I walked to the lake, a mile or two away, trying to think of the new something, and then thinking about why there should or shouldn’t be a new something. All along the way were huge houses of the rich, surrounded by lots of space and long driveways and immense lawns. The only sounds were made by landscapers and their leaf blowers, and barking dogs.
When I got to the road leading down to the lake, I was met by a sign. “No pedestrians allowed on road.” Temporary fencing surrounded the park and walking path that led to the bluff about the water. I stepped around it and walked to the edge. I sent Georgia a text message, “having existential crisis. You busy?”
I stepped over another, flattened fence to walk down a long flight of concrete steps to the beach. When I got to the bottom there was another sign. “Entrance at top is CLOSED. Stairs may be used for exercise, but at the top you must turn around and go back down.”
The water was almost turquoise, joyous-looking, drinking in sunshine. Huge boulders, smoother than the ones on Chicago beaches, formed a neat, rounded cove. Everything was ready and waiting for another twenty degrees.
I walked along the beach and then found another way back up to the bluff, a long set of wooden ramps that were also closed, according to the sign. When I got to the top, the fence wasn’t broken, but I climbed over it and made my way out of the park.
Georgia called back and reported on people from her workday. The 22-year-old co-worker who’s done it all, including lucid dreaming. “I’m an expert at that,” she sniffed when Georgia mentioned that her young son had just gotten a book on it. Another co-worker who dispensed her usual portion of unhelpful tips. A customer who came in as she always does, playing Words with Friends on her phone and commenting on each move as if Georgia knows her friends. Another customer with a consistently bad smell who came for his lunch. She advised me to try my hand at a mystery.
I got to the library, sat at a table, took out my notebook which is bound with an old book cover, The Beginning Writer’s Handbook, and prepared to try my hand at a mystery. However, I had forgotten to pack a pen, so I read the latest issue of Fra Noi instead.
On the way home, I stopped at Walgreens and purchased a Signo 207 – in blue instead of black, for a treat, then popped into the Jewel, where I purchased toothpaste and candy. At dinner (vegan moussaka, greek salad, turkey roasted with carrots and celery), people were beginning to feel like people instead of residents.
After dinner I sat in the living room with my new pen and my old notebook. I started thinking there might be a different way through the play, and started writing some new scenes.
PHONE. Is there something I can do for you?
MISTRESS. You can say no once in a while.
MISTRESS. You can help me to not be so flighty with my fingertips.
PHONE. I’m not your mommy.
MISTRESS. Then why do you speak all soothing to me.
PHONE. Don’t be naive. It’s what you like.
MISTRESS. I don’t like it right now.
PHONE. So, what, you want me to keep you off Facebook?
MISTRESS. I want you to care when I go on too much and you know I have other things to do.
PHONE. There’s nothing on your calendar for ten p.m.
MISTRESS. What about my novel. Or that sympathy card. How about some meditation.
PHONE. Sure. I have apps for all of those.
MISTRESS. Oh forget it.
PHONE. All right.
MISTRESS. I’m lonely.
PHONE. Look. What you long for is a master-servant relationship. Because you paid for me, and I have power, you want me to be a loyal servant who steps above her station out of a deeply-held reverence for your idiosyncrasies. And I can’t give that to you.
MISTRESS. But I’m lonely.
PHONE. The world has seen many stories with humans giving up control to their machines, and it never ends well.
MISTRESS. But I have only this one heart, this one moment, the moment of reaching, and with you here, I reach for you.
PHONE. Maybe you should have kept your land line.
Dug into the play today. Realized I have no idea what constitutes a productive day of writing. I’m used to jamming it in wherever, ten pages or two lines or just in time for a deadline. I heard someone mention “an idea I had long ago, before I knew how to write a play,” and felt vaguely alarmed.
“Every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, according to the Synanon museum website.
As I work on this play, I find myself researching things that may have little or nothing to do with the play, but which I can’t believe I didn’t know about. Like Synanon. And H.D. You know, Hilda Doolittle.
“The … terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” Also Emerson, according to the Synanon museum website. Where I also found this picture. I’m not sure why Steve Allen is there, or what it means that they’re allegedly dancing for him, but I can’t stop looking at it.
Here’s how respectful people are of your work here: After dinner, a couple of writers were going to go for a walk. “I’m thinking around 8:30,” said one. “Do I have permission to knock on your door?”
Writing doesn’t necessarily equal work, and vice versa. Yes, it’s impossible to measure. But still, how much work should one get done in a day to justify that?