How to write a play

I’m still deciding what I want this blog to be.  I don’t want to write about writing so much as I want to write around writing.  There are a few reasons for that.  First, there are already an awful lot of bloggers tackling craft stuff.  Second, I think I have some insight into a variety of topics that other playwrights might find useful that nobody is blogging about yet, such as, how to negotiate a contract over three martinis.  Third, though I hesitate to admit it, I don’t really know how to write.

Which is not to say that I don’t write.  I absolutely do.  To date, I’ve written fourteen plays, three novels, and I-don’t-know-how-many short stories and short plays.  Sometimes I get paid for it.  Sometimes I get fellowships.  But if you ask me how I do it, I’m going to tell you, “First, I pick up a pen.  Then, I open a notebook…”

It’s like asking me how I wash dishes.  I’ve never really thought about it, but if you put a gun to my head, I can break it down into things like, “First, I fill the basin with hot water.  Then, I squirt in some soap…”

I fear that the question infers that there’s some magical whatzit involved, and there isn’t.  It’s just work.

For what it’s worth, whenever I’m shooting the bull with another playwright, our conversation sounds like a couple of cubicle jockeys (or auto mechanics or postal workers or baristas) talking shop.  There’s the office politics stuff (“How did you get so-and-so to read your script?”, “How is it working with so-and-so?”, “Do you know anyone at blah-blah-blah theater?”), and there’s nuts-and-bolts stuff (“What are you working on?”, “Did you consider cutting the penultimate scene?”, “Is anyone sniffing around your last play?”).  We don’t talk craft stuff.  We don’t care about how to write a play; we already write plays.

Of course, that doesn’t help someone who wants to write a play and doesn’t know how.  If you can’t ask a playwright how to do it, how will you ever do it yourself?

To paraphrase Robert Pirsig, “The student asked the master how to write the perfect play.  The master replied, ‘That’s easy.  Simply make yourself perfect, then write normally.’”

Nothing wrong with theory.  Theory is great.  Stuff like story arc and character development and intention and negotiation…quality stuff.  I use it all the time.  But theory is theory, and writing is writing.  It’s the difference between “fixing to clean the garage” and “cleaning the garage.”  Sure, a little planning before you start can be valuable, but sooner or later, you need to start.  Don’t be too stressed about that; I assure you, you will be awful.  But until you write a lot of terrible plays, you don’t even know what questions to ask.

Want to write a great play?  Write a lot of awful plays.  Listen and learn in between.  Get produced, no matter how horrible your plays are (which will scare the crap out of you, but will also exponentially increase your learning curve).  Take your lumps and move on.  And, most important of all, always, always, always try to suck less.

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