Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The voices in my head

I recently returned home from Goshen, IN where I was guest of Goshen College as winner of their 2020 Peace Play Prize.  As part of the prize, I was given the chance to speak to several theater classes as well as conduct a playwrighting workshop.  I also got to see 3 performances of my winning play, with audience talkback after each performance.  So all in all, I spent a lot of my time there talking about what it is to be a writer, specifically a playwright.

"Where do you get your ideas for plays?" was the most common question, especially "Where did the idea for this play come from?"  I don't always remember when each play was born, but I do remember exactly how this one came about.  I was tutoring a very talented 10 year old who was already a rather scarily good writer.  I suggested that we both create a character from scratch.  She wrote an entire one page story, which ended with an older woman happily, peacefully strangling herself with the chain of her locket so that she could be with her beloved dead son.  I discovered Lucinda Celeste.

I say 'discovered' because Lucinda emerged on paper that day almost fully developed.  She already had a name; I could already picture her (in her 50's, short gray hair, wearing old clothes); I knew her son had been used against her in some ghastly way; I knew she was going to have to make a choice about whether to capitulate to the government or fight back.  I had not been thinking about any of this, and was not at the time (probably mid to late 90's) politically active nor aware at all, although political activism was Lucinda's life and eventually became part of mine.

It's a strange thing to be asked to talk about the writing process.  It's so hard to describe how it happens: the rush of energy when a new play is flowing out of my pen; when loads of raw material is heaping up in a great, messy, glorious mound; when the un- or sub-conscious have opened themselves up unfettered.  It almost never feels as though I'm doing anything at all besides taking dictation.  I'm fairly sure the material comes from me, but it doesn't feel like that.  It feels as though I am a vessel, a conduit, for something that exists outside of me and wants expression.  Even though I work on my plays really hard and often for a long time, I can hardly ever say about them "I did that, I  made that happen".  It's more like "I allowed that to happen, that happened through me".  But that can be difficult to convey to people who want some sort of concrete answer.

"What do you write about?" is another frequent question, also difficult to answer in any sort of tidy way.  I don't write about things so much as I inhabit worlds which are different from mine, sometimes greatly so, sometime only a bit.  Even when a play is based on people I know or on direct experience, I'm not writing about those people or those experiences.  I'm living in a world peopled with characters who are full-bodied and complete.  I can hear their voices, I know their surroundings.  All I have to do is understand what they want, these characters, what is driving them, and what is getting in their way.  I often have no idea how their story ends when I begin.  But those stories are so real to me, so tangible, so vivid.  How to talk about all of that in a way that makes sense?  Or in a way that can teach anyone else to be a writer, because each writer has to find her own way of accessing imagination, her own way of inhabiting the world of the story.  I don't know that the way I write could or does resonate with anyone else, but it's what I know.  No, it's not something I know; it's something I simply surrender to.

1 comment:

  1. "it's something I simply surrender to." Amen. That is the key, I think. If we don't surrender to what the writing wants, we fight it and the piece becomes forced. That is the way of poetry for me. Hugs, xoA <3