THOUGHTFUL SAVAGERY

KURT SAVAGE, Veteran/Writer

Month: August 2016

On Writing in Solitude

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A few years ago, before I wrote my first screenplay, I went to the Screenwriter’s Expo in Los Angeles. Naturally, they served up a glamorized and glorified recruitment pitch, quite rightly saying that without the writer, there’d be nothing on the screen, or the stage. They reinforced for us the image that I think most people have of the heroic writer hunched over his keyboard, a solitary genius typing away at works of staggering brilliance with enormous commercial appeal.

There’s undoubtedly some truth to that, but for the record, I feel compelled to admit that I seldom hunch over a keyboard. I do most of my creative writing in a recliner. With my feet up. And sometimes with a beer or a glass of wine.

But diligently working alone is not all there is to writing. A pretty fair number of us are deeply, profoundly uncertain that what we’re putting on the page makes any sense to anyone but ourselves, so we’re always asking others what they think. For every page of a play like this one, there have been conversations with hapless friends and loved ones that go like this: “So, I was thinking that my protagonist should be more like (famous literary character) and then he (does something that seems profound in my head) because what he’s thinking is (something else that seems profound in my head)…” interspersed with the other person’s counterpoint, “Yes, but I—Okay, but what if—That sounds—I don’t—sure, but—Okay—Huh—I’m looking forward to reading it.”

Sure, it’s the hunched-over-or-reclining writer who puts the words on the page, but everyone the writer talks to while he’s not writing that help him decide which words to actually put on the page.

It’s a safe bet that once the words are on the page, many of them won’t be quite the right ones, and the writer will have to hunch or recline for a while longer to do a rewrite, or two, or three, or a hundred. Because writing is rewriting.

It is an impossible task without the help of one’s tribe.

I am more keenly aware of this today than I have ever been, because last night was the first table reading of my first full-length stage play.

I tried. I really tried to be nonchalant, but I was nervous. Horribly nervous. I’d surrounded that table with some of the best people I know, people who are not only excellent humans, but are also ripping-good actors and excellent friends. They did what actors do: they came prepared. They understood my characters. Their characters.

And the first forty minutes were excruciating. There are jokes in there, people! This is the lighthearted, funny part of the play! This isn’t right! My brain was screaming at me, “NO ONE IS LAUGHING! ABORT! ABORT! ABORT! THIS PLAY SUCKS!”

I looked at the five friends who made up the audience, theatre people all, and they were…riveted.

Really? I thought. The combined intensity of their gaze could have melted diamonds.

And just as I’m looking at the play with new eyes and thinking maybe this is okay, one of the actors found his groove. And then another. And then the rest. And everyone was laughing where they were supposed to, and then everyone was crying where they were supposed to, and there in the final monologue, I got to hear the anguish in my character’s voice and I was sobbing right along with her, and damn-damn-damn, is this what it means to be a playwright?

No, actually, it isn’t. The conversation that happened after the words END OF PLAY is what it means to be a playwright. That conversation was entirely glorious and thoroughly, deeply, wildly humbling. There were notes, some of them hard to listen to. The ending needs work. One of the characters does something that doesn’t make sense. There’s a setup that never pays off. The structure of the last few scenes gives the play no less than four different endings.

But then one of the actors offered a suggestion that was exactly what I’d already decided to do. And an audience-member suggested a change I’d been planning for my next draft. Suddenly, there were two separate conversations going on about the meaning of the play, how beautiful it is, and how it will challenge its audiences.

I haven’t been able to shake the memory of that first forty minutes, but I know why it happened. I was so intent on keeping things casual and informal that I didn’t give time for the actors to warm up their instruments, even after two of them asked for that time, and all of them showed up early. The lingering twinge from that first forty minutes is perhaps my penance for not honoring the talents of my friends the way they honored mine.

Writing is never done in solitude, dear reader.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my recliner.

 

Three Things That Influence My Writing

Occasionally, I’ll read something that strikes me as so true, it changes my perception of my self. Here’s one from today:

“Everything influences playwrights. A playwright who isn’t influenced is never of any use.” — Arthur Miller

It’s been four months since I decided to change the trajectory of my life and career and become a full time writer. Specifically, a playwright. To be honest, it feels like a calling, in the same way that joining the Navy out of high school felt like a calling. I’m drawn to it.

My experience in the military was that the objectives achieved most are the ones that were well defined at the outset. The definition may change over time, but the OODA Loop always applies: Observe the objective, Orient towards the objective, Decide on a course of action, Act. Repeat as necessary.

Observing the objective involves understanding outside information and circumstances as they unfold. When an artist speaks of her influences, these two things are what she’s referring to: What’s been done before, and how has her awareness of it affected her work? What’s happening in the world as she works, and how does it change how she moves forward?

I’ve been asking myself those questions, and for a few minutes, there was actually a pretty interesting conversation going on in my head about it. What stopped the conversation, what hung me up, was the idea that there’s no limit to the things that influence me. Current events. Conversations with friends. Books I read and don’t finish. My checking account balance. How itchy my beard is. Game of Thrones. Pre-HD episodes of The Gilmore Girls.

It feels like too much, and that can’t be right. Can it?

Of course it can. Arthur Miller gave us permission.

The idea that it’s okay to be influenced by anything and everything, that how and what I write can change from day to day, is incredibly freeing. I can write within my genre and still bring in new ideas and energy and life from outside it. Being open to influences across the spectrum of my experience is what makes it possible for me to focus on my primary influences, the Big Three.

So here they are:

My connection to other veterans.

In the ongoing discussion about veterans and the price they pay, I often feel like I’m somehow “less than.” I served in five ships for a total of ten years at sea. I served thirteen years on shore duty, but was never ordered to serve ashore in a war zone. I spent less than eight months in war zones, and rarely left the boat. My “battle rattle” was a set of blue coveralls and a pocket-sized Daytimer. I never got shot at like some other veterans. I never chewed dirt like many other veterans. I never worried about who might be waiting to kill me as I entered a room. I don’t get uncomfortable near windows. So, yeah, I feel a little like an imposter, but instead of giving up and not writing a story about a Marine still suffering from his experiences in combat, I can use that feeling as an impetus to dig deeper, to get it right. These people, these veterans who write, they’re my people. I understand where they come from, even if I haven’t had the same experiences. By virtue of our shared wartime service, we are all on the same side of the divide between veterans and American society at large.

My connection to the past.

I wasn’t much for Shakespeare when I was a kid. I was so put off by the foreign-sounding language that I couldn’t connect to the stories. My horizons have widened a bit in the intervening 40 years, and now I find myself so mesmerized by his work that my own play is really a riff on Hamlet. My protagonist is named for both a beloved character in a Jane Austen novel and Jane herself. There are nods to Tom Stoppard, Monty Python, The Princess Bride and new-agey astronaut Edgar Mitchell.

My connection to the present.

There is a saying, one that’s widely reported as an ancient Chinese curse, that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” These are, most assuredly, interesting times. Pick a media source and I’ll show you a compelling story, so the “curse” actually seems to me like a boon, particularly since my objective is to inspire social change. Veteran suicide, relationship violence, gun violence, and the human cost of war fill all our social media feeds and dominate the news. It’s impossible to write without their influence.

I know some ridiculously smart, talented people. I get to learn from all of them. I get to create art with quite a few of them. I get to be married to one of them. Each of them contributes to my writing in a thousand ways, often quite profoundly. It’s exciting to acknowledge their role in my writing because in the end, the thing that enables a story to resonate is its connection to the humanity in all of us.

As a general rule, I don’t particularly like the “X-number of Things” blog post, but here I am, presenting one as my first post on my new blog. They’re ubiquitous to the point of being overdone, but they are almost “the rule” when it comes to online content. When I was in school, my teachers used to tell me that you had to learn the rules before you could break them, so, this is me, showing that I’ve learned this one rule, at least: Thou shalt have a list-post on your blog.

Now I can start breaking the rules.

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