It’s been a while since I last wrote a post for this blog. This is nothing new for me. I am a sporadic sharer-of-information when sharing at a distance, even at the best of times. Very quickly, here’s the short version of what the last year or so has looked like for me:
• I was hired at Linfield College as a visiting faculty librarian.
• My wife became a production and stage manager at Artists Repertory Theatre.
• Over the course of the last school year I collaborated with thirteen other faculty members in eleven departments at Linfield to teach information literacy. I taught for a combined total of 41 hours with 245 students. Half of the classes I taught were freshman seminars; the rest were 200 and 300 level classes.
• I took over two big projects at work: training and supervising my library’s team of student reference workers, and analyzing data from the HEDS Student Research Survey that we administered back in 2013/14.
• I took steps to becoming a point-of-contact on our campus for questions related to copyright and intellectual freedom.
• I applied for, and was offered, a tenure-track faculty librarian position at Linfield.
• I wrote one short play, which was produced in concert with several others written by my colleagues in Playwrights West, by Shaking The Tree Theater in Portland.
• I commuted approximately 17,766 miles – 567 hours spent in the car, listening to between 30 and 35 audiobooks and a comparable number of individual podcast episodes.
• I was, effectively, a single father for 18-20 weeks out of the last school year whenever my wife was stage-managing a production.
• I was overjoyed when my son started to develop, in addition to his love of other tabletop games and Pokemon, a passion first for Magic: The Gathering, and then role-playing games.
• Heard my daughter bemoan the fact that she doesn’t get homework anymore this year, and then realized that she loves school more than her genius big brother; and immediately fell in love with that little girl all over again.
• Watched my wife, almost 50 years old, apply herself to finally getting her driver’s license.
As you can see, it’s been a busy year. I trust that, if you read this blog, you’ll forgive me for not writing more. I have a six-week break coming up, though, so I plan to write more.
Playwrights West and SouthWest StageWorks present: The Waves, by Patrick Wohlmut
Directed by Matthew B. Zrebski
Cosgrove Auditorium at Wilson High School
1151 SW Vermont St
Portland, OR 97219
Preview February 14, and performances February 15, 19, 20, 21, and 22 at 7:00p
February 16 at 2:00p
$15 General Admission
$10 Students and Educators
Advance tickets at: http://southweststageworks.blogspot.com
Limited Seating! Advance purchases advised!
When Gemma transferred to Athens High School, other students were drawn to her intelligence, her unconventional beliefs, and her courage in standing up for those in trouble. But when she creates a system by which students can put each other on trial – a system that was meant to defeat Athens High’s biggest tyrant – she inadvertently threatens to create a whole new generation of bullies. Now on trial herself and defending against allegations that she indirectly caused the death of another teenager, Gemma must try and stop the trials before they consume everybody in the school.
About Teen West Project
The goal of Teen West Project is to develop and eventually publish new theatrical works where aspects of the teen experience are explored and expressed through bold and innovative story telling. Playwrights West has partnered with the Wilson High School Drama Department, known as SouthWest StageWorks. Playwrights West members engage with the students every fall through interviews and discussions – and then set out to pen a new play(s) for full production in the winter. These plays must have all teenaged characters. In this way, young performers are able to fully connect with the text and authentically portray the roles. This year, writer Patrick Wohlmut has written the 20 actor drama, The Waves, inspired by the secret culture of bullying and power dynamics many of the students discussed. Directed by Playwrights West member Matthew B. Zrebski, this intense and moving piece has already proven to be a remarkable experience for the students as they grapple with the play’s myriad, relevant concepts.
UPDATE, 2/12/14: Due to the recent inclement weather and its effect on the rehearsal process, the Friday, February 14th performance is now considered a Preview, with Saturday, February 15th now standing as the official opening. Accordingly, a performance has been added on Wednesday, February 19th. The performance information has been changed above to reflect this.
I was talking with a young screenwriter recently, and the conversation turned to how to continue being a writer. It struck me as odd. If one is a thing, then one doesn’t put much thought into continuing to be that thing. Existence fallibly entails continuation.
Writing is different, though. Being a writer is contingent upon making writing your practice. That means that after you make the choice to be a writer, in the beginning stages of your writing life, being a writer requires effort. There are things you have to do from the outset to make room in your life for this new way of being. If you’ve done these things from childhood, then you don’t even think about it. But if you’re creeping into your adult life and you’ve just decided that the writing life is one that fulfills you and that you want to pursue, then it takes work, even if you love it.
In Buddhism, there’s a concept known as the Three Refuges. These are the foundation that every Buddhist (or almost every Buddhist) accepts as the core of their practice. They are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha: teacher, knowledge and action, and community. It’s a recipe for how to grow and develop your Buddhist practice, now and into the future. It’s instruction in how to make room in your life to be a Buddhist, in how to continue.
So I based my advice on the Three Refuges, and I am repeating it below, with some revision. Five steps to continue being, and to continue being a writer, for those starting on the writing path, with supplementary quotes. This advice should look familiar, because it’s been repeated over and over again by many many writers. To my memory, however, I’ve never seen these points iterated as an integrated system before.
“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”
I agree with the idea that there are no shortcuts to writing. But in terms of doing it all on one’s own, this advice is quatsch. Nonsense. Bull-puckey. Some writers can learn solely through trial and error, but most of us cannot. Having somebody there to share their experience, help you avoid pitfalls, guide you through the vagaries of structure, sensitize you to the different uses of language, and a hundred lessons else is an invaluable tool for not only continuing to be writer but excelling at it. If nothing else, having that knowledgeable support there, placing a gentle hand in the small of your back, will keep you writing when you would have otherwise given up.
2.) Read. This point can actually be divided into two sub-points: read narrowly, and read widely. Reading narrowly means reading within your field. As a playwright, I need to be reading plays, books by playwrights on writing, books by other theater makers on making theater, listening to theater podcasts, and so on if I want to stay good and/or get better. I hope I don’t need to outline the importance of that. However, I also need to be reading widely. Anything I can get my hands on. This is the practice that stokes the fires of the imagination, inspires us, increases our overall knowledge of the world, and expands our vocabularies and our vision, and lets us see what it is possible to do with the written word, no matter the genre. One quote attributed to Stephen King, from his book On Writing, says:
“I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”
This is the very definition of a writer. It makes no difference if you’ve never been published, never made a sale, never seen production: if you are a writer, then writing is your practice. It’s a part of you. The only way to fail at being a writer, then, is not to write. You can feel this for yourself. If you don’t write for a while, it feels wrong. It feels like your insides don’t fit inside your outsides. And when you start again, you’re rusty. You start making old mistakes, and have to remind yourself not to do that, even though you already know. That’s frustrating. Continuing to write, every day, keeps you fresh and on your game, even if nobody ever sees what you do…
4a.) Make something: The oogy version. …but people should see what you do. Why should they? I had a singing teacher who once told me that singing is part of being human. We have voices and we have words, and singing is really just lengthened speech that makes full use of our vocal apparatus. Therefore, singing is our birthright. If that’s so, then storytelling is also our birthright. Informing, entertaining, speaking truth, lying, and weaving a good yarn are all our birthrights. That means that novels are our birthright. Poems and essays are our birthright. Theater is absolutely a birthright of ours. And if these things are inside of you, then you do yourself and others an injustice when you keep them to yourself. It’s a kind of stinginess, of greed. Good writers are generous with their audience. Practice generosity; make something, and share it with others.
4b.) Make something: the non-oogy version. Look, writing a play is a different ball of wax than writing in your journal. It requires structure, characters, often several plots, setting, style, and theme. It requires you to juggle these things until the words, “END OF PLAY,” roll across the page at the end. Do you think that jugglers learn how to toss chainsaws in the air by sitting around and watching other jugglers do it? No. They learn by doing it. They get better, more confident, more discerning by doing it. Suzuki Roshi says:
“After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, ‘Oh, this pace is terrible!’ But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress.”
Sharing your writing with others also creates accountability. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, are afraid to share what we write with others because we have this built-in audio track in our heads that chuckles on repeat: “They’re all going to laugh at you! they’re all going to laugh at you!” Instead of being intimidated by that voice, use it to your advantage. Let it drive you to make the best possible play/story/poem/novel/essay you can before you share it with others.
5.) Find a community. There is a common, historical fallacy which states that writing is, in the end, a lonely process. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the best things that ever happened to me, in terms of my writing and my personal life, was to be invited to join a playwrights’ circle called Playgroup. Playgroup was home to some of Portland’s finest writers for the stage, and I got to be one of them. We not only shared our work with each other, we provided each other with professional and artistic advice and support. Our individual styles went on to inform the writing of others in the group, and we developed friendships and working relationships that last to this day. It was a creative and artistic incubator that significantly directed the course of my writing, my career, and the way I think about theater.
The great thing about joining a community of writers is this: you don’t have to wait to be invited. You can seek them out, or you can create them. They can be as informal or as formal as you like. The point is that you gather and share with a group of people who are of like mind and purpose, who hold each other up and show each other how to walk the path with greater power, ease, and grace. Author Jane Smiley is quoted thus in the book We Wanted To Be Writers:
“If you look back at the history of the novel, nearly everyone who succeeded was part of some sort of literary group. There is hardly anyone who thrives on being solitary. Think of Virginia Woolf and her circle; they supported one another and talked to one another and talked about literature. Thackeray and his friends, the same.”
So there you go: Five Refuges for Writers. A way to continue. Do you have anything to add to the above list? Please comment below. And, as Brandon Sanderson says every week on the podcast Writing Excuses, “You’re out of excuses. Now go write.”