This is the third in a series of “behind the scenes” posts about the stuff that really goes into producing a show in NYC. Karl has previously written about choosing a title and getting set up for “show” business. If you’d like, click here to be notified when the next one goes live.
I am a writer.
I’m calling myself that because my students and I recently met Reg E. Cathey, and he advised them never to say “I want to be an actor, or an artist,” because they need to define themselves by saying “I AM an actor.”
I also teach others how to write (I have to eat), and as such, I am privy to all sorts of writing advice. Be it advice regarding the writing process, advice about what to write, or advice about what to change in one’s writing, I’ve gotten it all, given it all, and am going to share it all with you.
Some of what I’m going to say here will probably contradict some of the greats, and I have no intention of pretending to know more than Stephen King (my husband is reading On Writing this week). But regardless of how good or bad it is, here is my advice to those who want to write:
Mix it up.
Change your medium. Often. Constantly. This was an amazing piece of advice I got from my beloved late playwriting professor Dr. Jonathan Levy.
I am a totally different writer when I write in MS Word, or in Final Draft (where I do all of my playwriting), or in my awesome handmade floppy leather notebook, or on a napkin, or with a pen, pencil, crayon, chalk, etc. When I am writing on paper, I often hold two pens in my hand, one black, and the other a color (sometimes pink, but more often brown or green), and I switch between the two to make different kinds of notes.
Let it suck at first.
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.”
I live, breathe, and preach these words. It was a massive point of growth in my life when I realized that not everything I put down on paper had to be gold, and that I would have nothing to work with if I expected that.
My first drafts are SHITTY. I write first drafts just to get all of the information onto the page. I ignore language, don’t use subtext, and am not worried about how realistic my dialogue sounds. That can all come later if I have the main ideas on the page. Here’s an example of a few lines in their transition from Shitty First Draft to Polished Final One:
You don’t get it.
Don’t get what?
I’m not you, and this isn’t acting, you can stand in front of anyone and make anything come to life the moment you open your mouth. I can’t just get up and make my art happen.
So instead you sit around and mope? It’s selfish bullshit.
The fact that you can’t get over yourself for ten minutes.
My parents died. It’s not like I came out to for a good time.
Well some of us did.
And you’re calling me selfish? Then what the fuck does that make you?
You’re tagging along with me so that you can meet rich people. So that you can flirt with fame and make damn sure everyone knows who you are. You came here for you.
That’s not true.
Yes it is Sarah, and you know it. You don’t give a shit about what anyone but you wants. Or needs.
That’s not true!
You know, I should probably go check in with Leslie.
She’s in her bedroom.
MRS. JORDAN exits. SARAH is suddenly huffy.
She’s “in her bedroom?”
What were you doing in Leslie’s bedroom?
Just catching up, why?
You know why.
No, Sarah, I don’t.
This fight between Judah and Sarah didn’t need to be so complicated. At the core of this argument is Sarah’s jealousy, and in the second, cleaner version of this fight, that’s all we get, and it’s really all we need. My shitty first drafts are often like this, VERY heavy on the exposition; I almost deliberately spell out everything that the characters are thinking, because I need to get it out of my system, and then in the revision process I reel it it, clean it up, and polish it.
Kill your darlings.
Don’t be precious about anything. OR, if you must, be precious about the ONE or TWO things that you absolutely cannot let go of, and be willing to give up almost anything else.
It’s hard to talk about this without giving away parts of the play, but here goes: There is one part of 210 Amlent Avenue that Karl and I hold onto tightly, despite being told that we should reconsider it. (We can be very stubborn.)
However, this means that we have to be even more flexible when it comes to working and re-working everything else. We’ve gotten rid of huge plot points and reworked of a lot of the play in order that this one part of the story will make sense and ring true. (If you want to know what part I’m talking about, ask me after you see our production in July.)
Throwing things away in your writing is scary. And sad. I’ve had many devastating moments where I’ve had to kill a scene or a line that are so upsetting that I just can’t work anymore. But that’s writing. That leads me into my next point:
Mine most often include couch, salty snack food, and dog. On that note:
Let things simmer.
Move away when you’re stuck. Leave it alone for a few days. Watch some good TV, read a book, do other work. Sometimes when you come back with a fresh set of eyes, your entire world has changed. In fact, I don’t know what to write next for this blog post, so I’m gonna close it and come back to it.
Ok, got some Chinese food, and now I’m back. And full of soup. Yum! And now onto my last bit of advice:
Don’t be afraid if you’re going slowly. Or if you’re not in the mood that day. Or if you’d rather just sit back and watch Friends on Netflix (true story). You should write every day, but it should be something you look forward to, not something you dread.
There are days where I can’t even think about looking at a script, and on those days, I doodle in my notebook, or eavesdrop bits of dialogue in public spaces, and that counts. Even if you’re not physically putting pen to paper, you’re still creating something, you’re still feeding the artistic beast. The gift of a speedy writing process is not something that was bestowed upon me. I’m just not wired that way. And there’s nothing wrong with it.
Well, I think that’s all for now. In a few weeks I’ll be back with a piece on how to give advice to writers (aren’t you excited!?).
What advice have you gotten, writers? Do you have tips for putting words on a page that we should know about? Comment below and let us know. 🙂 Also, click here if you’d like to know the next time we post a “Behind the Scenes” exclusive.