Two weeks ago I started a new semester in which I’m concentrating on all things dramatic. By that I mean I’m taking two classes – ‘Introduction to Theatre’ and ‘Playwriting’. I love the theatre. I love the ‘play’ and I’ve been involved in amateur productions in many capacities for most of my life but actually writing a play is kicking my ass! Not because I can’t envisage the actors on the stage – in fact I can see them clear as day in a set concocted in my mind following stage directions to a T. What is tripping me up is the drama.
I just got a rough draft of a short play that I wrote back from my professor – in it, a married couple have a conversation. Sounds dull? Yip, it pretty much was and my professor, rightly so, told me exactly that. “Flat” and “uninteresting”. That isn’t to say that there may be a play hiding somewhere in the draft but it is utterly missing the critical ingredient, the aforementioned drama. And so my new quest is to learn how to write dramatic characters that are not clichéd stereotypes but are complex, and real but happen to talk and act in a heightened way. Of course, these characters have to engage and entertain a paying crowd as well! We just finished reading and studying a wildly funny (and hugely dark) play by Ed Falco called Possum Dreams. The play pits a married couple against each other over the course of an evening when secrets are revealed and confessions are made. The two characters are intricate and genuine but do, at times, fall into the ‘clichéd’. After all, the catalyst for the action is a 40-year-old man that hits a midlife crisis and has extra-martial “sexual encounters”. But, the beauty of the clichés and the way that they play out is that they are both spookily real (I literary could hear real people from my actual life saying some of the lines from the play) and fantastically, dramatically, entertaining all at the same time.
I’m not going to give away spoilers as the play is soon going to be staged off-Broadway (see the flyer) but what transpires in the play is nuts, like, seriously nuts. So much so that if your best friend met you in the pub the day after and told you about his night you would be insisting that he was a bare faced liar. But amongst the shenanigans Falco dismantles so many deep rooted notions about the institute of marriage in such a beautifully skilled way that it makes me want to be him when I grow up!
And so it is back to my dysfunctional couple and how to give them depth & growth & drama and a story that unfolds in a engaging way that makes also a statement – oh, and did I mention the play only lasts ten minutes! Thankfully, I love a challenge.
p.s. Off to book my flights for NYC for Possum Dreams … see you there?
To say my “career” in writing is in its infancy is an understatement in the extreme. So far my “body of work” consists of a smattering of short stories written for class, one semi-decent poem and a few more rubbish ones, and five unrefined chapters that I hope will one day will make a novel-length story. But since I’m trying to motivate myself to write more, and with it hope to become better, I keep one sleep-deprived eye, half-open for possible opportunities to submit pieces. But it is daunting. The sheer number of places you can submit work for publication and/or enter competitions is so overwhelming it is paralyzing. You also have to have the patience of a sloth (I’m assuming sloths embody patience?) as the speed at which submissions get reviewed for publication can feel glacier when you are new to the game. I’m learning it is best to submit something then just forget that you have done so until the rejection email pops into your inbox – saves you the energy of compulsively checking their submission managers. Competitions are a mixed beast for me – I’m pretty competitive in nature so the idea of winning a writing competition is extremely enticing, but then the realization that I’m unlikely to win any due to the greenness of my writing can feel deflating. But isn’t this the point of offering up your creative writing to an audience? So you can be scrutinized and judged and compared to others. And isn’t it just part of the process to become hardened to both the compliments and the criticism?
For me it is about lowering myself into the pool at a slow enough rate that the frigid water doesn’t take my breath away – at least that is how I like to approach cold bodies of water, others like to take a running dive-bomb in but I am convinced my heart will stop on impact if I try that. So I look for friendly places where I can expose my writing for digestion. One of those friendly places I have found is a local writing group where the people are constructive with their suggestions and are a lot of fun to spend time with. Sadly, due to some transportation issues (who would have thought living in America in your late thirties and not holding a driving license would be problematic!) I haven’t really been able to attend since my daughter was born. And so when I recently learned that they are running a competition for the first time I had the sense that I really couldn’t not enter! But there is a small catch that is slowing me down – there is a theme that the entries have to abide by, superheroes.
Typically when I start a new piece I start with an image. A single image that I then expand into a scenario, and then finally into a story. For example, the short story “News” started as an exercise in class where we had to write a less-than-three page story in 3rd person objective with the words “bomb threat”. I started with the image of a man sitting in bed reading a newspaper and the story unfolded from there. I have been throwing images around in my head for ‘superheroes’ and to even come up with an image I like has been a struggle, far less an image I can unravel into a story. I don’t know why this theme is proving difficult for me, is it too general, is it too specific, does it relate too much to a genre of books I typically don’t read and I can’t find a way to connect? I finally landed on an image … that of a young girl dressed in a gold and black superhero costume surrounded by grownups in their best finery awaiting to attend the New York City Ballet opening gala. Now what? Something has to happen, right? A gunman starts shooting into the crowd and the little girl’s mother throws herself onto the girl to save her – blerugh, too much. A car crashes into a food cart and the little girl’s father rescues the vendor who is pinned under the car with superhero strength – blerugh, too clichéd. A homeless man … yeah, just blerugh.
My writing is at its best when I’m detailing small events, everyday events that can happen to anyone. It is what typically interests me in my reading too, ordinary people dealing with ordinary life. So what can I find in this image that is “ordinary” but engaging for a short story? I guess all can I can say for the moment is: to be continued …
My first love.
I aspire to being a book collector. I’m sure my husband would claim that I am already a book collector given the rate at which new books appear on our living room shelves, but it is far too grand a title for me. I’m more an accumulator of books. I have a condition, an addiction even. I have a need to own books. To me a house is not a home unless it has multiple bookshelves stacked high with books. I find any and all excuses to buy new books; I need them for class, it’s for my daughter, it was buy 3 for the price of 2, it wasn’t my fault. I smuggle books in to the house and stack them on the shelves before my husband gets home so they look like they’ve been there all along.
Simply put I have a problem but it is isn’t one I intend to find help for anytime soon. I suspect my magpie-like tendencies started as a young child. My parents home was always full of books, all sorts of books from cheap paper-back copies of every Agatha Christie ever written to beautiful hardbound editions of classics from the Folio Society that sat on the very top bookshelf to keep them out of reach of sticky fingers. My parents started buying and collecting books by the Folio Society in the 70s and have done so at scattered intervals ever since. My sister and I soon got folded into the ritual of getting one book each from the Folio Society as a Christmas present and we loved it. The books are works of art with original illustrations and love poured into every aspect of design from the covers to the fonts to the slipcases. For those of you who have yet to discover the joy of the Folio Society it is a small English publishing house that started in the late 1940s to produce “editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman” (- Charles Ede, founder of the Society). It is run as a club and as a member you commit to buying four, or more, volumes a year and so it is an investment. Unfortunately, at this current point in my life, it isn’t an investment we can justify. But, to my giddy excitement, not long after moving to Toledo and on our first trip to explore the nearby Ann Arbor I discovered a gem of a secondhand bookstore that always has a stack of beautifully nurtured Folio Society books. And so, as a treat whenever I am able, I get to sift through the stack and pick one to bring home with me.
But why blog about this now? Well there is a two-fold reason. Firstly, this is my version of standing up and saying “Hello, I’m Morag and I’m a book-oholic” and secondly, the intent behind this site and blog is to motivate me to write and to send writing out for consideration. And it is working! At the very last gasp I decided to submit a condensed version of an article I wrote on the history of the Folio Society to the Mill, the literary magazine of the University of Toledo. I haven’t heard yet if it was accepted, and I’ve just realized that in my rush to submit it before the deadline I forgot to format it correctly and so it will likely be rejected. But it almost doesn’t matter if it is published or not. By setting up this site I pushed writing to the front of my mind again and I found the time around my daughters crazy (non)sleep schedule to pull something together for submission. Now I just have to do that again, and again.