Thursday, February 20, 2014

"The monsters under a writer's bed" - notes of a talk by Randy Baker

These are notes I took (therefore it is I who is responsible for all the inaccuracies) of an hour-long talk Randy Baker gave to a group of writers in Annapolis Maryland on 2014-02-19 at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. The talk was sponsored by the Maryland Writers' Association. Randy is a playwright and teacher I wrote about in a previous post on the 10 minute play project.

Randy is a walking list of titles: he is co-Artistic Director of Rorschach Theatre, faculty member at American University (where is Director in residence), playwright in residence at the Arena Stage, faculty member at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, and the list goes on.

Here is his wonderful talk, in a nutshell. I'll be posting the video later (added 2014-08-21: part 1, part 2, part 3).

Writers, playwrights and poets all have a common problem - the monsters lying under our bed, those things that keep us from writing.

Monster # 1: A kind monster - the monster of inspiration. What inspires you to write? We all want to make people believe in something fantastic - think of the ending in Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" (the husband is asked to believe and then the statue of his dead wife comes alive and they are reunited).

A tangent (one of many): How did I become a playwright? The path to being a writer is never a clear one. I always wrote but never called myself a writer. I directed and produced plays and even have being commissioned to write plays. Yet, for years I didn't call myself a playwright. Why? This leads to the next ...

Monster # 2: This is the biggest and most terrible monster: the monster of self-doubt. Some things writers say to themselves:

  • "I'm writing the wrong way."
  • "My writing will never be good enough."

Never talk yourself out of writing. I still have self-doubt - we all do. It is a part of being human. The trick is not to listen to it. Don't let it diminish your writing.

Another tangent: Stop talking about your writing. Instead, write it and show it to your writer friends.

Getting back to the inspiration monster - watch out for it and don't let it get in the way. Don't wait for it. It is a romantic cliche that you need to have inspiration strike you. Forget that. What you should remember is that writing is work.

A person with a good idea, with great inspiration does not a writer make. A writer writes as if it were work - which it is! A writer is a person devoted to the work and craft of writing (indeed, this meaning is at the origin of the spelling of playwright).

Create characters that want things and the rest will come.

Here is an analogy to keep in mind. Suppose you are a director of a play or film and you are preparing frantically in anticipation of the first day of meeting your actors. You prepare pages and pages of notes of how this scene should go and that scene should be blocked. Then you meet you actors and you find your prepared ideas will not work. They are not useless or wasted (you should always prepare) but they must be changed.

Writing is no different. You still have to prepare - perhaps one character has a hobby and affects the story line, so you do research on that hobby. Does that mean all your research has to make its way into the story somehow? No. Putting all your prepared research into your story may not work but that doesn't mean it's wasted.

When in doubt, I mainly rely on two things:
  1. Look at the structure - at this stage of the story, what does structure say should happen?
  2. Look at reality - what in the world around you relates to the problems being faced at this point in the story and how does the real world react to that situation?

Edward Albee said: "Playwriting is poetry meets architecture."

Would you expect an architect to say "I'm not working on designing that building until inspiration strikes me"? No, of course not. Writers can't say that either.

Back to Monster #2: The self-doubt monster also says "no one will ever read what I write". This is a biggie. On the other hand, no one asked you to be a writer. You must make that choice.

Monster #3: Loneliness. The stereotypical writer can't socialize well, thinks abstract esoteric thoughts, etc. Wrong. Writers must build a community, creating collaborations, and not be lonely. You must find your own community.

Remember: these monsters on not real. Stop listening to them, and write.

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