My blog the last few entries have been me mostly angsting and I want to return back to when this blog was meant to be filled with advice and lessons learned for aspiring writers. So that said…
I’ve sworn by José Rivera’s 36 Assumptions on Playwriting and have thought a lot about what my advice might be. While I’m primarily thinking of playwriting, I think this can be used for writers across genres.
- My biggest pet peeve is when writers say “Here’s my play/book/poem/story. It’s not good.” That immediately makes me want to not read it. Stop saying that! Stop calling anything you create as “not good.” Good is subjective and it’s meaningless. I’ve read many Pulitzer winning plays and books that I couldn’t stand and I’ve read many plays and books others have hated. Good doesn’t tell me anything useful about your work other than you don’t believe in it and why would I want to read something you don’t believe in? Instead of saying it’s not good, tell me what you’re actually struggling with. “Here’s my play but I couldn’t quite figure out the beginning so it’s a little shaky there.” That is way more useful than “not good.” I think people think by saying something is bad or not good, they’re being modest but honestly it’s just annoying. If you’re going to take the time to create something, stand behind it and stand up for it. Your time is valuable and so is mine. Creating is magic; stop selling it short.
- On that note, just write it. You cannot edit and write at the same time nor should you. I’ve established good is meaningless but if you can’t get out of your head about it, fine. Write it anyway. Give yourself permission to just write it and get it to the page. Truth is you don’t know what you have until you have it. Getting stuck in your head helps no one. I understand outlining is important for some writers but don’t get stuck in the pre-writing phase. Give yourself a cut off date and just write it. If it’s messy and there’s a part you can’t finish, skip it and keep writing as if you wrote the perfect thing. Keep going. Don’t let your self-doubt get in your way. I’ve often put [something happens here that leads to the next thing but I don’t know what that is yet] and then just kept writing. You don’t have to have all the answers right now. Just write it.
- Always try to write something you’ve never written before. Every time I approach a new play, I think “what have I not tried yet?” Take BIG risks and go for it. What’s a genre you’re afraid of? Write it. Afraid of big casts? Write it anyway. Think your play isn’t production-conscious? Write it anyway. An exciting risk is always going to be more interesting than a writer who falls into a formula and writes the same thing over and over again.
- As much as you’re able, incorporate all five senses, especially smell. This is simpler than you think it is.
- Rivera says you get to write one impossible thing. I think in addition to this, identify the thing in your play that no matter what anyone says, you will not change. This is the heartbeat of the play. This moment guides all the others. Be careful with how you choose this moment as it directs how the entire play will go.
- Find people who will tell you the truth and let them. I like to joke that all of my friends are assholes. They tell me the truth whether I want to hear it or not and that’s why I’ve kept them around. I can trust them and even though I may not always agree with them or like what they say, I know it comes from an earnest place. My friends don’t sugarcoat anything and some of their truths have fully knocked me down. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. You need people in your life, especially in your creative life, who will explicitly tell you the truth. It will be hard to hear it. It will be easier to find “fans.” It’s nice to have people who support you no matter what but you also need to absolutely make sure there are people in your life who have conditional support. Those are the people who help you get the best rewrites, the best ideas, etc. And honestly they’re just a fun time. (For astrology fans, these are the fire and earth signs in your life. They will tell you the truth whether you want to hear it or not.)
- Have a mission statement. Write it down and put it somewhere you can see it often. Memorize it. It should be one-sentence. You don’t have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to. I don’t share mine. But you absolutely need one. Instead of asking yourself if your work is good, ask instead if it’s in line with your mission statement.
- Many people say theatre should feel like church. For me, I like when theatre feels like a playground, like you’re a sporting event. On the edge of your seat, wondering if your favorite player will make the goal or not. And that high you feel whether they’ve made it or not…that feeling needs to exist somewhere in your writing. What’s the “oh shit” moment in your play, story, poem…At what point do you want the audience on the very edge of their seat? Don’t tell anyone when it is but when you hear your play for the first time, watch the audience. Are they relaxed or are they leaning forward? You really only get 2-3 moments like this so plan them carefully. Every play needs at least one moment that makes the audience’s hearts race but no more than 3.
- I’d much rather see a play with a strong heartbeat than a play with “cool elements.” If I’m not thinking about the message of your play three days, three months, three years later but I remember that one cool lighting effect, that’s not a great play. Personally, I like plays that make me question something about myself. I read Cloud Nine ten years ago and I still think about it every single day.
- Calm down. We’re adults playing pretend; it should be fun. I used to hate when people said this. I felt that it made us forget about the hard work we put into it, that it diminished the art of what we did. Now I just feel like that point of view is pretentious. I played 3 sports in high school and it was a lot of hard work. Hours and hours of practice. But it was still fun. Theatre doesn’t give us much. We aren’t paid very well. People trash talk playwrights to our faces and try to change our lines. If we’re gonna deal with all of that, it at the very least should be fun.
This advice won’t work for everyone and that’s okay. Take it or leave it but if you only really choose one of these 10, for the love of all the gods, for the love of the universe, please take to heart #1. I don’t care if it’s good. I care if you told the truth.