Naplwrimo 2009 Burst # 2: Follow Your Digressions by Dennis Schebetta
Rhino Bursts* are written specifically for you by people we deem worthy of rallying Rhinos thanks to the magic of their words. Thank you, Dennis for capturing so well what it's like to start Naplwrimo week 2 and for helping us find the motivation to keep going.
*A burst is the sound that an adult rhino makes, though it is barely audible to human ears. A baby rhino on the other hand makes a squeak.
Making it to the second week of NaPlWriMo feels like waking up hung over after a great party, doesn’t it? You get lost in those first days of feverish typing, exhilarated by the frenzy of creating another world and getting to know your characters. And then the buzz wears off, replaced by an overwhelming sense of fear and doubt as the spark of your great idea fizzles away.
Congratulations, you just hit your first wall. You’re probably reading this right now to avoid writing (because everyone knows the best way to avoid writing is to read advice about writing). The usual wisdom is offered: “Press on, don’t judge, stop rewriting your first ten pages, find your voice, follow the rules, break the rules, be the ball, etc.” Good advice, but you want that secret recipe, that silver bullet, that shortcut. You want whatever the hell David Mamet and Neil Simon are eating for breakfast.
I’d like to tell you it’ll get easier over time and there is a secret shortcut. But I can’t lie to you, Rhinos. After fifteen years of writing plays, I’m just like you, stuck in that hangover called the second week and hitting that wall of doubt. My strategy is to write as fast as possible so my most honest impulses will slip past my inner censor. The only comfort of years of experience is recognizing the familiarity and size of the wall.
It’s right about now that the play may not be turning out exactly the way you thought. Your characters aren’t behaving as planned. I’m here to tell you that that’s okay. Go with it. Now is the ideal time to shed some of the conceptions or misconceptions about your play (or about theater). As much as we want to believe it, there is no PERFECT PLAY. There is only your play. Use any tactics available to uncover it wherever it may be buried. Of course, it may not be buried where you think it is. You may think you’re writing a dark drama but surprised to find out all your characters are so darn funny. Again, that’s okay.
It’s still early enough to be brave and indulge your impulses. If it doesn’t work, you can delete it, start over or rewrite. Only you will know if you have deviated from your outline (if you do outline). Venturing into uncharted terrain is scary, but if your character does something that surprises you, there’s a good chance they’ll surprise your audience. If that spear-carrier character is becoming more interesting than Caesar then re-think the plot. If you realize you don’t want the whole play to take place in a smoky bar, add a scene in a circus tent. Change the lead character’s gender or profession. Other ideas may blossom from the most minor change.
Once I wrote this play with two characters lamenting about their love lives in a coffee shop. Bored me to tears. For fun, I moved the location to the Museum of Modern Art and a slew of new ideas sprang into my head. The characters became clearer and a whole new story emerged. Sometimes that’s all you need, one little change.
Follow your digressions. You never know where they will lead you because it may just be your instincts talking and therein resides the truth. (And by digression, I don’t mean distractions, like cleaning your closet or stalking ex-lovers on Facebook.) Don’t think of these digressions as a waste of time. This is part of the process.
Writing a play is hard, but even harder is to ignore what others expect you to write, to break through your conceptions and discover how you really feel about something. It usually takes me a week of writing ultimate crap to finally start writing from a place of honesty. I spend so much time writing somebody else’s idea of a play, instead of my own. But I repeat this mantra; when in doubt, keep writing. Even when you don’t feel like writing, when everything is resisting, because that may mean you’re getting close to a truth worth uncovering.
Dennis has worked as an actor, director, dramaturg and playwright with various companies in New York City including Ensemble Studio Theater, 13th Street Rep, HERE Arts Center, Vital Theater, and Gallery Players and regionally at Washington Ensemble Theater, Portland Theatre Works, Theatre Schmeater and Bruka Theater. He is currently the Seattle Regional Representative for The Dramatists Guild of America, Inc. and teaches at Bellevue College. Some of his work includes an infamous “Miss Piggy” monologue (published in Smith & Kraus’ Audition Arsenal), and the plays Burning Botticelli, Obscura, The Albatross, Love & Death in the Time of Crayola, and 7 Minutes to Midnight. He also writes for The Dramatist magazine as well as in his blog http://fightingthevoid.
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