Friday, March 26, 2010

Those who can, do...those who can't...well, you know.

"Where do you get your ideas?" This is the most common question, I think, that people who write for a living get asked. Stephen King, granted, a prose writer, gets this question ad nauseum, apparently. He goes into some detail about it in his book, On Writing. Which, incidentally, I highly recommend.

Tennessee Williams said he always had the title in mind first and the actual story came later. Not surprising, I guess, from the master of titles: Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana. Now those are great titles. Puts the current crop of titles to shame: Wit, Proof, Art. Come on.

John Irving has said he has no idea what's coming next when he writes. He has a very vague idea, but that's about it.

Hemingway used to say the story was fully complete by the time he put pen to paper, it was just a matter of editing it in his head.

Shakespeare, apparently, stole all of his story lines from historical incident or famous lore of the time.

Arthur Miller, not one of my favorite playwrights, wrote about whatever he happened to be mad about at the time. That shows in his work, I think. Oddly, a writer I find deadly dull for the most part, is also responsible for, to me, the best play of the twentieth century, Death of a Salesman.

Lanford Wilson, a playwright I admire a lot, is firmly in the "write what you know" camp.

David Mamet? Anyone's guess. He's a lot more versatile than people think.

For me it has always been about the elusive muse. And that muse is really unpredictable.

One thing I remember King saying in his book about writing is how happy he was when Carrie first became a financial hit for him. It meant he could stop teaching school and concentrate entirely on his writing. But then something unexpected happened for him. He realized he didn't have the stamina for writing all day, every day. He likened it to being an athlete. He simply didn't have the physical or mental resources to do it. He had to train. When he first quit teaching and sat down to write the next book, he said he only had a few hours in him before it all shut down. Like a marathon runner, he had to train himself to write for seven or so hours a day.

Some very fine playwrights I know spend their days scouring the papers and the internet and the evening news looking for their next subject. I can't imagine that.

I think my next piece of work is going to be an epic, large canvas, love story. The muse is upon me for that. The problem is I don't have time to write it right now. What with teaching, acting in Praying Small, energetically pursuing the next production of EAST/WEST, taking care of A and Z...well, I just don't have the long stretches of isolation that writing requires right now.

One thing that most writers I know have in common is the idea that the work, when they're fully on the right path, "writes itself." This is a phrase I've heard countless times. And I know exactly what it means. When I'm in the middle of something good, something that feels brutally honest, I don't expend a lot of effort, frankly. It just pours out. But when I'm forcing something, forcing all the ends to meet, forcing the characters to get from A to B, well, just doesn't work. It's just academic writing. No point to it at all except maybe to make the theme and plot make sense. That's no good. Without the passion, it simply doesn't work.

There are sections of Praying Small where I remember stepping away from the screen for a few minutes to gather myself. Just too painful. Sometimes a writer can accidentally access a corridor so horrifying as to almost be un-writable. That happened a few times in Praying Small.

I remember the one and only "writing for the stage" class I took many years ago in Missouri. Typically, the instructor had never written a professional play. Yet, as often happens in humanities classes in academia, he was simply perpetuating ideas that have failed. His Ph.D. was his pedigree, not his actual work. It's a sorry state in higher education. Why don't they bring in professional, tried and true, working actors to teach instead of some schmuck who's never been on a paying stage in his life up there mindlessly droning through Uta Hagen's silly, boring, useless book? Why? Because academia applies the same rules to theatre departments as they do to all the other departments in the school. That is to say, education rules. The more degrees one has, the more qualified they are to teach. Well, obviously, theatre doesn't work that way. Degrees mean nothing. Less than nothing. When was the last time ANYONE EVER asked about a degree before hiring an actor? I'll tell you when...never. That's when.

Anyway, this instructor daily spit out worthless information. You must have a beginning, middle and end. Who says? Do not introduce a gun in the first act if you don't use it in the second. Who says? All plays should end with catharsis and tie-up. Who says? The first emotional climax should end act I. Who says? Never do this or that. Who says?

Had a friend of mine once say something cool to me. We were talking about whether Shakespeare had really written everything people said he did. I remember asking him (now remember - my MFA is in Shakespeare studies, so this subject has fascinated me for years), how could he have written on such an astonishing array of subjects with only a grammar school education? He was essentially a small town, merchant's son, after all. Certainly not of the ruling class that had access to higher learning during that time. My friend said, "give me one example when the aristocracy has written or painted or danced or acted or played something groundbreaking? All great art comes from the masses. Otherwise the entire human cycle of creating would simply be endlessly repetitive." He was talking about academia, too, of course. I mean, why would someone want to take a painting class from someone who has never sold a painting? The instructor is simply passing on more ways to fail. He is reinforcing his own pattern of failure. Therein lies the bedrock of why academia, in the instance of theatre, is built to fail. It is taught by watchers, not doers.

I have to make breakfast now for my beautiful significant other and my cute-as-the-dickens dog. See what I mean? No time to write that great love story. Only live it.

See you tomorrow.