Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Writing a Play is like Building a Bookcase

A few weeks ago, I finished building a built-in book case in my office. I was struck by how the activity of writing a new play and building a carpentry project are similar (and a few ways they're different), at least for me.
  1. I really like making stuff. It doesn't matter whether it's with wood or words, there's a process and a result. In the case of the bookcase, the result feels a little more concrete.
  2. I don't always need a big complicated outline. In this case, I was able to draw a sketch on an index card and that was enough to build. The case is simple and strong, built in solid maple that has a certain glow. Just like the tone of language affects the perception of a play, the choice of wood makes a big difference.
  3. Sometimes I'm not ready to build yet. I bought the boards and they sat on our basement floor for a month or two until the moment was right. The same thing often happens with plays--I'll have an idea, maybe do some research, but I don't have the right space in my life to write it yet. Rushing ahead doesn't work.
  4. I'm not formally trained. I've seen some of the work by the students at the North Bennett Street School in Boston's North End, and I'm blown away. They are true craftsmen and artists, who know their tools intimately. I'm not at that level in my carpentry, not by a long shot. In terms of writing plays, I do a lot by instinct and from experience of 20 years of writing scripts. Sometimes wonder how my work would turn out if I had gone to graduate school. In the end, though, my book case serves me quite well, it looks good and hold books, and I enjoyed making it. That might be mostly what I need from the plays I create, too.
  5. The project needs to come together in a certain sequence. All the boards need to be cut to the proper length, assembled dry, adjusted, glued, nailed or screwed, then patience is required for each step of finishing--sanding, sealing, and over and over again until the surface is just right. Plays work much the same--from outline, to rough draft, to big cuts, to polishes after each reading and production.
  6. I never build the same piece twice. I'm always looking for a new challenge or to fill a new need in what I build from wood. I enjoy solving problems as they arise.
  7. I tend not to get paid for my work. (Actually, this isn't totally true either of playwriting or of carpentry.) For the carpentry, this feels natural. For the playwriting, it's a struggle.
  8. Though I have an audience (my wife and family and anyone who visits), ultimately, the piece needs to be done such that I'm satisfied with it. I will know every flaw, even if they're not readily visible to others. And I will learn to live with those flaws, because they're a part of the project. Perfection is not my goal, neither in writing nor in carpentry.
  9. Sometimes it's beautiful.

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