Saturday, April 26, 2008

Inge Festival Day 2 – Writing on Writing

The thing I like most about being with other writers is hearing what makes them tick and taking comfort in hearing that my muses and theirs seem to know each other. Since most writers are solitary creatures who spend hours alone slaving over a story — or a blog posting — it’s liberating to come out and spend time with the rest of the hermit community. We have a sense of solidarity in our solitude.

You can tell a great deal about a person by what they choose to write about and how they choose to do it, through a play or a poem or a novel, but you learn more as well by learning what they don’t choose to tell you but reveal anyway through their subconscious clues as well. That’s one of the things I like most about being here at Inge.

I spent today in playwriting workshops with three very different playwrights with three very different approaches to their work and how they see the world. But what was clear from listening to all three of them was the most important thing for any writer to is to write not just about what you know, but what you are passionate about, and in doing so, make yourself heard not as a writer, but as a voice.

The first session was with John Augustine, who, among other things, has written for TV, the stage, taught playwriting, and acted. He did a workshop with students and others where we read excerpts from plays in progress (and one finished work) and looked for what works and what doesn’t. John made some excellent points about technique, including telling the audience what kind of ride you’re going to take them on, being delicate and gentle with your exposition, and, in a comedy, letting the audience know it’s okay to laugh early on. John generously allowed me to have two people read the opening pages of Can’t Live Without You.

This was followed by a talk by Christopher Durang, who shared with us the opening scene of a work in progress tentatively titled A Comedy of Terrors. I won’t give the plot away, but suffice it to say that if you’ve enjoyed his work in the past, this new one will not disappoint. After the reading, done by the playwright himself standing at a lectern, he talked about some key elements that are important to him as a writer and a teacher. He repeated the axiom for all writers: write about what you know. But in this case, he doesn’t mean just writing from your own life experiences but writing about what you know: writing from your point of view is the most truthful way of telling the story, and that will make it the most interesting. That led to his next point: don’t write to be seen as a great writer, or even as a writer. If you do, you lose the honesty and the clarity of writing that comes from not caring if the world hears you or does not. Don’t write to be heard as a writer; write so that your writing doesn’t get in the way of what it is you have to say.

The afternoon session was with Adam Bock, whose play The Flowers was presented in a concert reading Friday night. He gave out a list of seventeen pieces of advice for aspiring writers, including:

– Story vs. Form: The story is the most important thing in the play, so if it’s not working, change the form: see it from a different point of view, change the style, redefine the characters; whatever it takes to get the story across.

– Know the obstacles in the story — the conflicts — and be open to making them larger, different, more perilous, more interesting.

– If you get lost in telling the story, look at the play. The answers are already there.

– Show the play to people you trust and work within your community to get the play read, staged, heard, and seen. Know your allies and use them as they would use you to help you and give you their insight.

– Ask yourself if you really love doing this, or does it make you angry, disappointed, or scared? If you don’t love it, how can anyone else love what you do?

After listening to these three writers, I remember why I love coming back here every year: it is like a pilgrimage where I can restore my faith in the simple act of telling a story in my own way and finding completion in creating characters like Donny in Small Town Boys and sending him out into the world for others to discover and perhaps identify with.

Writing is the only thing I know how to do that challenges me and fulfills me on so many levels, and being with other people who know what that means is truly amazing.