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Is There a Right Way to Write?

If the foundation of quality theatre lies in the brilliance of individual scripts—and it does—then the script development process is the platter upon which the entire realm is served. It's rather frustrating, then, that there is no formula by which a writer can transmogrify an unrefined idea into a glossy and sparkling finished product. Making things even more difficult, an individual writer's life is usually a fairly solitary one, with drafting, revision, and fine-tuning occurring within a vacuum of space and time without the input of others.

The unhappy result is that many writers simply give up on promising ideas well before they've finished anything. Some let go when the flow evaporates, when the action doesn't seem to be progressing, when the characters seem to have stopped. Others let go after they realize that their script is too much a collage, having allowed too many outside opinions to infiltrate the process before the piece was ready to be heard. Still others never even get started, writing down notes and imagining different scenes, but never having the courage to put pen to paper, or, rather, finger to keyboard.

To aid these kinds of writers in particular, we consulted a fine group of artistic directors, playwrights, and other theatre professionals to provide hints to further the flourishing of the artistic process. It's not all that surprising that the ideas tend to be harmonious, though there is the inevitable subtle dissonance on some points.

Where the Words Come From

We all know that writers should "write what they know," but, on full examination, what does that mean? What if you know very little? What if your personal story is dull? Don't many writers take on stories involving subjects they know nothing about?

Maryke Huyding, literary coordinator for The Mill Mountain Theatre, has an interesting take on what writers should consider when wondering whether a particular idea has currency. No matter if the concept is personal or not, Huyding believes the idea should introduce certain shadings with which a writer is intrigued, but does not fully or even partially comprehend. "I think writers like to write about things they don't understand," explains Huyding, who has worked as a dramaturg in addition to her duties at one of the nation's better-regarded developmental theatres. "If they do understand, why write about it? Writing is about discovering the answers."

For many writers, this means looking inward, trying to understand personal problems and family mysteries that have cast a shadow. Says Susan Johnston, an articulate and charming playwright who recently presented a play called "Old Woman Flying" at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center (perhaps the nation's premier playwrights' conference), "The ideas will inevitably come from yourself in some way or another. Almost all of my material is from family and friends." She adds, with an edge, " Any writer who says they're not writing about themselves is lying—we create these myths for ourselves so we can lick the old wounds."

The personal connection also tends to churn a writer's emotion, allowing for more idiosyncratic and original creations. John Dias, literary director for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, believes "some of the most exciting work comes from a very individual and personal place." James Houghton, artistic director of the O'Neill, frames the search for material from a psychoanalytical, somewhat academic perspective: "Plays and storytelling come from a multitude of experience that informs a subconscious state. The conscious does enter into it—that's the craft of it. The subconscious is talent and instinct."

All this doesn't mean writers should be limited to writing their personal stories. Of course, writers should be open-minded when thinking about material, which can come from anywhere and everywhere. According to Huyding, "Writers should open themselves up to how interesting life is—the most fascinating piece of history may not hold up compared to the conversation people in the bus are having." Eric Lane, a playwright who has attended the celebrated Yaddo artist's retreat six times, indicates, "I've found material from all different places. One time I was walking down a street and there was this woman wearing a coat, and there were two feet sticking down from the coat, and I realized this was a child—this sparked a play."

Interestingly enough, writers tend to get material from similar places to the point where a given year's submissions may inevitably reflect the zeitgeist. As Dias says, "We notice plays about similar subjects—last year, there were a bunch of plays dealing with violence, and there have been weird things, like brother-sister incest plays. This year, there have been teen car journey plays for some reason."

The First Draft

Once a writer settles on an idea, the hard work begins—ordinarily a lengthy sojourn to the end of an often messy and misshapen first draft. Whether one should proceed alone or with others on the first draft is a question we posed to many of our interviewees, with varying responses.

"My belief is that a very, very first draft should probably be done on your own; groups are more useful in the later processes," says Julie Balzer, lab director of the Looking Glass Theatre, which specializes in women's work. Jeffrey Hatcher, a playwright whose plays have been produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and The Guthrie Theatre, and who currently is presenting an adaptation of "Tuesdays with Morrie" at the O'Neill, agrees wholeheartedly. "I very seldom get all that communally involved," exclaims Hatcher, who has written dozens of plays that have been produced all over the world. Hatcher has particular trouble understanding how people can bring in individual scenes to a group that does not know the rest of the play in question. "I know they do that at postgraduate study, but I can't imagine doing that. To read one scene of mine and then judge it is like you telling me what I think of my tie without looking at the suit."

Of course, some writers do bring scenes to groups every week, particularly when those in the group are extremely supportive and professional. Kirsten Greenidge, a playwright who, like Hatcher, is currently presenting a play ("Yes, Please and Thank You") at the O'Neill, had very productive experiences working with fellow graduates of the Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa. "For a while, I worked with people I was in grad school with—that was really invaluable, where the stakes are really low, but the respect was high." Others will ask peers to read the play aloud and then refrain from commenting until the draft is finished. Says Huyding, "I know people who like to read it to friends and don't even need feedback—it's more about hearing the play than hearing other people about the play."

However a writer proceeds, it's imperative to allow yourself to be sloppy and make mistakes when writing a first draft. Lane confides, "When I first started writing, I tried to get the first draft perfect, and that inhibited me." Greenidge agrees: "I guess my biggest advice is, don't be afraid to fail, don't be afraid to be bad—some of the greatest writing can come out being technically bad."

Development Programs and Workshops

After a draft or two or three or four, feedback is vital to insure that a play is refined as well as it can be. It is certainly a mistake to simply consider a play finished without having shown it to anyone for further cutting and pasting. Says Curt Dempster, artistic director of Ensemble Studio Theatre, certainly a preeminent developmental theatre: "It's really imperative for playwrights to get feedback—everybody gets it, some privately—even though playwrights like to think plays come from the head of Zeus."

Many say that true feedback is best gleaned from close professional associates who are not judging a piece as an end in itself, but as a step in a long process. These kinds of relationships are essential to a writer's survival, asserts Dempster: "It's imperative writers find a long term connection so they develop their plays with expertise—they have to be able to find theatres or individual directors to support them." Johnston says she just finished a development process at the Lark Theatre Company in New York and praises the process there. "They do a lot of table reads, with just three of us at the table talking about the play," says Johnston. "Live readings before an audience can be scary—and you sort of get one chance with a certain company or people, and that's what gets really scary."

Other writers put their plays through what is known as workshopping; the purpose, in theory, is to make the plays sharper and leaner so they are more producible. The truth is that workshopping is often an end in itself rather than a way to further sharpen the material. Dias explains that the problem "really relates to the unfortunate state of new play production. We can't put on all the plays we want to put on. Sometimes, just to engage a writer, you put on a workshop. I try not to do that; I try to be helpful to a play."

The danger of all this, especially for those who go from workshop to workshop, is in a writer changing the play at each turn. The result can often be a canvas with too many different colors, some of which are obviously contradictory. "You can waste a lot of time on pseudo-developmental processes," says Dempster, sharply. As a result, some theatres try and make a concerted effort to treat writers gently, nurturing their work instead of trying to force it out. Tony Sportiello, artistic director of the 42nd Street Workshop, a developmental theatre in New York, tries to insure that his theatre lets plays evolve naturally. "Plays can have the life squeezed out of them. I don't think we do that here, but too many times in the Off-Broadway world actors or directors will get hold of a piece. A little bit of that is fine, but, too often, writers can let themselves be bullied," he says.

Houghton, who has made considerable changes to the O'Neill's structure since taking over a while ago, is also very careful not to over-criticize writers in development. "There's so much emphasis on rewriting, which does not necessarily mean good work," avers Houghton, who believes that "a successful visit to the O'Neill should result if the writer comes out of here feeling slightly more connected to themselves." Central to this thinking is not allowing a writer "to get too soon into the craft mode—once you're in it, you can't go back. The best work is given room to evolve naturally. It presents itself over time. It's more of a visceral experience than an intellectual one." As a result, "I tell writers in residence, 'Do what you want to do—if that means go to the beach, that's important.' " He concludes, glumly, "We're creating a generation of writers who write for other people."

Crucial to a positive developmental experience is to know how to deal with the inevitable blunt comments—whether from peers, professional colleagues, or soon-to-be-former friends. According to Hatcher, it's vital to distinguish the comments of a conscientious observer from the ramblings of a drive-by talker. "I've seen good playwrights throw out good material. I've done it myself. There's a huge tendency to listen to other people's feelings," he admits. "You have to learn who's Hal Prince or Jerome Robbins and who's a ham-and-egger." He adds, wryly, "Even when the comments are mostly positive, most playwrights are pathetically insecure and take an errant criticism as the proclamation of the 'last honest man.' "

Hatcher looks with a critical eye at the now-fading custom of having members of the public criticize a play after a particular "developmental" performance. "Nobody likes post-show discussion—by and large, it's only to make the audience feel like it's part of the gig." Houghton agrees enthusiastically. "I've cut all the feedback sessions out. We can empower the writer to pick and choose from whom they want something. Someone who stands up in a crowd and says something can be very hurtful."

Greenidge relates an experience attending the O'Neill some years ago, when playwrights were subject to very tough comments after a particular play was presented. "My experience was that if you know how to rewrite and have a strong sense of self and play, all that can be good. But I did see some situations that were somewhat damaging where a writer had to defend the play. If the organization accepts it, they should respect the play." Evidently, this kind of damage did happen to Greenidge personally. "I didn't know how to rewrite and so I took everyone's feedback. I figured if I incorporated everyone's feedback I would have the best possible play. It took me about a year and a half to realize what I had done. I learned never to compromise my writing again."

If you're in a situation where you're getting feedback that isn't necessarily positive, it's still important to maintain your dignity and composure amid the bluster. "People should learn to say 'thank you.' Don't be defensive; no one likes getting negative feedback," says Balzer. This may be easier to do if a writer remembers the important rule that criticism, even by the most celebrated hand, "doesn't matter unless it resonates with you," as Sportiello believes. It may also be helpful to remember that those who are most insistent may well be the ones with the least relevant things to say. As the ancient Chinese writer Lao-Tzu wrote over 2,000 years ago (perhaps in response to criticism of a play): "Those who talk don't know. Those who know don't talk."

Discipline and Block

Graham Greene, the now sadly departed English novelist, is said to have insisted on writing 500 hundred words a day—no more, no less. And every playwright has heard tales of writers working eight-hour days, like businesspeople, holing themselves up in offices and banging away until their fingers swell and their head comes close to combustion. Are limits limiting or productive? How many hours a day should one write? Should writers own egg timers, even if they are vegans?

The answer is, no surprise, everyone is different. Dias claims, "I know some people who say, 'If I don't write 15 pages per day, I haven't succeeded.' " And yet some people simply cannot fit writing into their schedule each day, given the need to do such little things as paying for shelter and food. "Now that I'm working fulltime, it's a matter of squeezing it in; it's very frustrating," sighs Johnston. "Besides, I was never really a schedule person. Plays tend to come in big chunks—you won't work for two weeks, and then you'll work non-stop for two days."

Balzer's answer is to define writing broadly, so that virtually anyone can "write" each and every day. "I think it is necessary to commit to find a place for writing every day, even if you take 10 minutes to read what you wrote," she encourages. Trying to encourage those who might not write for long periods of time, she adds, "Tony Kushner says he writes an hour a day and he thinks that's enough." She admits there is danger, however, in letting too much time pass without actually writing some new words. "Don't let a week go by where you haven't spent an hour or two writing," she explains.

Hatcher notes that word limits tend to be more appropriate for novelists rather than playwrights, since fiction is far less streamlined than dialogue. "The limits tend to work better for the prose types—a great American play has a lot less writing, word wise." He personally tends to write "till I get tired—then I might switch to something else I'm working on. But this only works if the two works are utterly different in tone." Lane also will not set deadlines, and warns against a masochistic streak that some writers tend to have: "There's a certain point in the day when it's diminishing returns. I'd rather spend three hours letting it flow than have eight hours torturing myself."

Whatever you do, it's important to note that there may be hours when you write more efficaciously. "I know people who've come to realize that their best writing comes at certain times of day," explains Dias. Most people seem to say that writing in the morning is easier, perhaps because the subconscious is more readily available before the whims of the world spin one's brain about. "I write better in the morning or afternoon. If I write in the evening, I spend the day worrying about writing in the evening," says Lane.

What if you can't write at all, whether in the morning or late at night or even under a palm tree in Bali? It may be a good idea to try a writer's retreat, especially one like Yaddo, which is interdisciplinary in nature and intended to be non-competitive (once you get in). Says Leslie LeDuc, public affairs coordinator at Yaddo, "We have a mix of different kind of artists—poets, novelists, playwrights—and for some people, the intermixing of the disciplines causes new ways of thinking." These artists tend to pull for each other as well, to the point where they arrange impromptu sessions without the intervention of the staff. "When you get a lot of creative people together, they do readings for each other—we don't even check to see what they do," she says, proudly.

Lane says his time at Yaddo totally changes the way he writes, insofar as he no longer feels pulled in any negative direction. This has led to surprises, including altering the length of scenes that he writes. "The structure of my work has changed as a result of my being at Yaddo. When I first went to Yaddo, I wrote a 45-page scene. I hadn't written a scene of that length for seven to eight years. Instead, I would be forced to write shorter scenes because I would say to myself, 'I'm going to write this scene before I go food shopping.' "

Retreats also allow writers to get in touch with physical beauty, which, according to many, has a stimulating effect on the creative process. As Lane relates, "When I went to Yaddo, every day before I would start writing I would go to a waterfall and listen to a sound—then I would go back and start to write. This ritual put me in a place where I was ready to start working." He adds, reflectively, "I would also draw for a while, years ago. I didn't feel pressure—it felt natural; it's a good place to start."

Music can also be a wonderful spur. "I use music as a device to get me to write," relates Greenidge. "Usually, I turn on the radio and I dance around—sometimes I don't need to do this, but if I'm blocked, I do." Lane likes to listen to music when he is working on pieces that relate to a particular time or place. "Music of the period puts you in touch with the themes of the period."

Books can also be useful along these lines, with several flagged as being particularly well drawn and intelligent. "There are some wonderful books out there that I myself have used—one called 'Writing Down the Bones,' " admits Dias. Huyding adds, "I recently picked up a wonderful book, 'Playwriting in Process' by Michael Wright—there are pages and pages of exercises in there. If you're stuck, just do some exercises and ideas may come."

Writing in a journal is another tested way to stimulate one's inner scrivener. Especially useful is a diary of one's actual dreams, if you are one of the lucky ones who can remember dreams after awakening. As Johnston relates, "I keep a dream journal. I pay attention to my dreams; I write about them a lot. I pay attention to my characters' dreams, too." It's also helpful to remember that going to the theatre can be motivating if you simply cannot get yourself to write. Maybe it's sad to say, but envy can have the effect of an electric cattle prod on blocked writers, according to Dias. "Going to the theatre is a great spur. If you're a writer, you may feel jealous. Going to the theatre can also help you see what works in a particular kind of play—and what doesn't."


Perhaps the ultimate spur toward writing is going to school, where you have to bring in pages—no excuses, no complaints. And yet, fulltime Master of Fine Arts programs tend to be extremely expensive and do not guarantee any sort of success or remuneration. Is it worth it to go to school, even if you can somehow afford it? Or is it a big waste of time better spent on putting up your own show, or perhaps on starting your own company?

School "gives you an opportunity to do lots of writing, get a lot of feedback," says Thomas Morrissey, artistic director of the Genesius Guild, a theatre company looking for "cutting edge" new plays in Manhattan. Greenidge, who went to the University of Iowa for an MFA, agrees: "I think it was a great opportunity to write—and I think if you do it right, the right program can help you write a lot." She adds that an MFA program "is a great place to learn craft. In times of trouble, craft can be really helpful."

Many writers and theatre professionals confirmed this particular observation, stressing the importance of story structure, and implicitly lamenting writers who have talent, but lack awareness of the basic rules of writing. "I've encountered people who've benefited. Some schools provide things for people that they're missing, especially dramatic structure," says Dias. Of course, for writers who already have a grasp of structure or who may have learned it at the undergraduate level, the need for an MFA may be less acute. Lane says, "An MFA is good to create certain connections, fine tune your craft. I don't have one, but I do have an undergraduate degree."

Many people, like Lane, believe an MFA is particularly helpful for networking. Johnston exclaims, "People who are out of Tisch, Juilliard, Yale, American Repertory Theatre—their stuff gets read. Their teachers, they know the producers. The reason I went back to school was I felt I was writing in a void." She adds, "I've been in New York about 11 years, and what an MFA program does is, you're in a room with people who are going to be in the business for real. You make these connections—and putting Tisch on your resume legitimizes you in a way that I couldn't be when I was just Susan Johnston."

Some literary arbiters admit that an MFA will also affect their judgment when a submission comes across their path. While Dias claims he "doesn't notice it at all when the script comes in," for Huyding "it's not completely irrelevant. There are programs that have an excellent reputation—and if you've studied with Paula Vogel or Julie Jensen, it can have an impact. So, do I pay attention? Yes. Do I not read a play because a person doesn't have an MFA? No." Balzer admits, candidly, "An MFA can say that someone else thought you were good." She continues, "Art is so difficult a thing to judge that you want confirmation of your instincts."

Nevertheless, most stress that an MFA is by no means necessary to achieve success as a playwright. Hatcher says, "It's not a necessity whatever. It's useful for some in that it concentrates your focus—just being in the hothouse environment will engender more thinking, more writing." Balzer notes, "Some really great playwrights don't have degrees at all."

What's mostly necessary, for sure, is actually writing a lot, in addition to having the benefit of the four ingredients Herman Melville listed as necessary for a thriving artistic career: time, strength, cash, and last, but never least, patience.

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