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.