Thursday, June 21, 2007

5/5 Meme

Malachy Walsh tagged me with a meme started by Laura.

...its purpose is to get people talking about their passion in life. It’s called the 5/5 meme. Five questions, then pass it to five people. “Expertise” could be your profession, hobby, or area of intense interest.
If I haven’t named you specifically and you would like to do it, feel free. I’d love for everyone to answer these questions. I’ve named five just to get it going.
Remember: This is a “get to know you” meme. It’s supposed to be breezy and fun.

1. Name your area of expertise/interest:

Writing. I have experience in a lot of different kind of writing--novels, plays, screenplays, articles, newsletters, non-fiction books (okay, proposals anyway). I also have a strong interest in helping writers figure out how to market their work (hence starting Market InSight, and the Playwright Submission Binge).

2. How did you become interested in it?

I got involved in theatre because of my mom, who acted and made costumes for community theatres. I started acting and working backstage with a small professional company. When I was in college, on a lark, I wrote a short play and submitted it to them. They decided to produce it. It was a great experience, and the rest is history.

When I was in college at MIT, I took a class called "Creative Seeing", where we made a short video project. I loved it.

I was lucky that the public response to my early plays and films was so positive (as was the process of making them). If it wasn't, I probably would be a computer geek right now.

(Confession: I also played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in high school, and that taps a lot into basic storytelling skills and desires.)

3. How did you learn how to do it?

I got a super 8 camera and started making short films that we'd show at dorm parties, and people loved them. I took classes (which weren't inspiring), made some 16mm shorts (which taught me a LOT), and spent a summer working part-time as a cameraman for a TV news station in upstate New York (Plattsburgh). I read all the books I could find on screenwriting (which was pretty much only Syd Field back then), took a class at NYU (though couldn't get into grad school there, and couldn't afford/didn't want to attend Columbia, which let me in at the last minute). Basically, I wrote a lot and started submitted. Many years later, I got an agent and worked a bit with a producer, and that taught me a lot, too. Lots of learning by doing. (And watched a TON of movies and broke them down.)

For writing plays, again I learned by doing. I've never taken a playwriting class (though I took a bunch of creative writing classes in college). But I acted in high school and college. After college, I self-produced my first full-length play as an Equity Showcase in NYC. Later in Denver, I co-founded a theatre company (Chameleon Stage) which I helped run for a few years. I was up to my neck in all aspects of theatre for years (I ran playwrights' groups and organizations, facilitated readings, directed plays, ran sound and lights, etc.). My first play was produced 20 years ago (isn't that a scary thought?).

How did learn to write other stuff? By trying it. I thought it would be fun to make radio theatre, so I wrote a grant and produced four half-hour radio shows (we sold three of them to NPR). I love novels (isn't that like saying I like air?), and wanted to see if I could write one, so I did. It took a long time to get it published, but I liked it enough to try writing another (I'm in the middle of it right now).

4. Who has been your biggest influence?

In terms of plays, when I was young, I was a big fan of Pinter, Beckett, and Ibsen. Plays by Anthony Clarvoe and Ping Chong and Caryl Churchill were important to me. The Denver production of Hunting Cockroaches by Janusz Glowacki has always stuck in my head. But really, I've been most influenced by the other writers (and our director, Mark Higdon) in Chameleon Stage, and the writers in Rhombus, my current group. These are people who have pushed and challenged me year after year.

I started writing screenplays under the spell of the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Coppola, John Sayles, Oliver Stone. I'm a big fan of Charlie Kaufman and Alan Ball.

For novels, there are so many writers I admire. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin. I love Nick Hornby right now, and Jasper Fforde, and Anne Tyler. As I kid, I grew up reading science fiction, reading all the Heinlein and Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke I could find. Narnia and Watership Down and Lord of the Rings drew me in completely.

My friend Mark Dunn is someone who I look to. He wrote plays, a whole bunch of which are published, then wrote a great novel, Ella Minnow Pea, followed by more novels, non-fiction books, with more to come. He's one of my role models.

5. What would you teach people about it?

Hm. That's a tricky one, isn't it. (I've read some of the other folks in this meme, and they offer such good advice.)

There's two different parts to my answer, because there are two different parts tothe question:

1) I'm not sure how to teach someone how to actually write. From my experience, it's something best accomplished by practice and repetition. Write something, get it produced or published. Write more. Write more. For the actual writing, part of the goal is to get good enough at the basics (being comfortable coughing up words out of your brain in a coherent string) that you can get the hell out of your own way. In some ways this gets easier, as you practice, just like typing. However, in some ways this gets harder as you've written more, because there are more external pressures and it takes more energy to silence the internal critics they represent. Real writing happens when all the voices of self doubt and criticism shut the hell up for a while, and you're able to listen to the story and characters all by themselves. You must write in a state of self-delusion--you must believe, at least at first, that what you're creating is worthwhile and fantastic and thrilling. Sometimes it's just crap, and you'd better be able to write absolute crap and not assess its inherent crappiness until after it's on the page.

2) I've thought a lot about what I can teach someone about how to be a writer. In addition to writing, my hobby is thinking about the discipline and mind set and marketing that it takes to be a "writer" in the sense of someone actually working on creating a lifetime body of work for a public audience.

In this sense, I'd suggest that people who want to be writers:

  • write a lot
  • have a regular schedule
  • make friends with other writers (playwrights need to know directors, actors, and producers, too)
  • submit widely
  • remember that getting rejections means that you're doing your job
  • remember that for most people, it takes a very long time to build a writing career. We read about the exceptions in Newsweek and in the New York Times. Even most of those writers have been working their asses off for years in order to appear to be overnight sensations.
  • Don't confuse poverty or riches with quality. Not all great writers are poor and unknown. Not all rich writers are hacks.
  • Expect to want to quit often. Even if you start to taste success. If you quit, you only have to answer to yourself. If you think you can live with that, you might not want to start. (However, since you're only answering to yourself, if you quit, you can restart anytime you want.)
  • Reaching a wide audience requires talent, hard work, and a lot of luck. I know many many writers who have the first two ingredients, not so many who've gotten #3.
(That seems like more than enough.)

I'm not sure I know five bloggers who haven't already been tagged by this (some aren't writing about theatre). I'll tag Dan, Dave, Mirror Up to Nature, Meron, and Johnna.

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