Tuesday, October 19, 2010

for Jessica: my "cathedral made of fire"

One of the perks I offered for contributing to my play shower was a blog post on a topic of the donor's choice.  The first such request to come in was from Jessica, who became a "big sister" to my play (and the sponsor of the character of Annette).  She asked me to react to this comment in the NY Times by author Michael Cunningham:

"Many novelists ... will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent.... It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. ... It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire."

Jessica asked if I felt I had conveyed the play I wanted to write; if I ever felt frustrated at not being able to capture thoughts on the page.  A very interesting question.

I suppose I was very fortunate in writing this play the way I did. I imagine many people who begin writing do so because they have had, "for months or years", some idea in their mind, some story burning inside them, screaming to be shared with the world.  That is not how I began this play. I had no idea what story I was going to tell. I actually feared I didn't have a story to tell. I knew I wanted to write a play, but I didn't know what play. I started with a character I loved from a short play I had written, and I knew a little about his conflicts and struggles, but I didn't know how it was going to end until I was probably about two-thirds of the way into it. Even my playwriting teacher was a bit amazed by my writing process - how I would begin a scene with no idea where it was going to go, and with no idea of what the next scene was going to be. He always writes to an ending. That ending may change a dozen times or more along the way, but he is always heading towards something. I was writing blind. Many pages got thrown away in this process - probably nearly as many as remain in the play. But the only way I could discover the story was to keep writing, letting the characters talk to me, until I began to see the shape of their story.

So unlike Mr. Cunningham, I had no "cathedral made of fire" in my mind. I was even kind of prepared for the play to suck - I mean, shouldn't a first play suck? Who gets something like this right on the first try? It does happen (Crimes of the Heart was a first play, for example, and there are others), and it may even have happened here. At least there are some people who think so. But I barely dared hope for that.

Since I had no idea what to expect, and had no vision in my mind to live up to, my little play had nowhere to go but up. Since I basically had no expectations for it, it could only exceed them - not fall short. This was truly a blessing for me, I'm sure. And I'm sure that it will be difficult if not impossible to repeat, because now I have expectations.  Will the next play I write be anywhere near as good as this one? Will it take me longer to write, or less time, since I have a little better idea of what I'm doing? Haven written something good the first time out, my next play will have a precious, prized older sibling to live up to - it will be the younger sibling always striving to achieve what the first born did.

I think I may have a way around this problem though. I have already conceived of my next big creative idea, and it isn't a play. It's a musical. Stay tuned.
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