Lord knows the world has changed since I wrote this talk, but when the world falls to pieces around us, especially when the world falls to pieces, writers will still sit down to write. As Beckett tells us, even when we have “no power to express” and “no desire to express,” we still have “the obligation to express.” Telling stories allows the reader or the audience to see through the eyes of another, and generates empathy that we need now more than ever.
What follows is a talk given at the Kenyon Review on October 12, 2016.
When you read interviews with writers, you hear they get to work at five in the morning and work for eight or nine hours at a stretch. Be comforted; they are lying. They may have done that for a single day, in the first fervor of a New Year’s resolution, but most of us struggle to find the time to write, and struggle equally hard to find worthy ways to avoid writing—like reading the many volumes of Karl Ove Knaussgard, taking intensive Spanish, or holding down a teaching job. But on any given day, the longer you wait to start writing the more things will come up, and those things will soon expand to fill the day.
It helps me to get out of the house so that I’m not tempted to do a load of laundry or get out the Christmas decorations. When my husband’s at home, he talks really loudly on the phone—he’s still living in the early days of cell phones when you were always on the verge of losing the signal—and I’ve gotten more sensitive to sound as I’ve gotten older. But libraries, where I often work, have changed. They used to be oases of silence, but now people are there to check their email or borrow DVDs and even the librarians are holding conversations at full-volume. Cell phones have made it impossible to work in coffee shops and I’m continually amazed at how impervious people are to dirty looks. So I travel with sound-deadening headphones, but I always forget to turn them off again, so the batteries are usually dead. At that point, they serve mostly as a prop to demonstrate my desire to concentrate. Proust, they say, worked in a cork-lined room, so he basically inhabited sound-deadening headphones.
I write early in the day, because it takes mental energy to write, and by the afternoon mine is spent. When I sit down to work in the afternoon, I always hear the faint siren song of a nap. Couldn’t I nap and then write, you ask? Hypothetically yes, but after a nap I hear the siren song of a snack.
I begin the morning by reading through yesterday’s work. The process is like pulling a comb through hair and looking for the tangles, or being a safecracker listening for when the tumblers drop. I hear the rhythm of what I’m writing in my head, scanning for any unnecessary words or syllables, and I do whatever it takes to make the dialogue more speakable. Edith Wharton once said that dialogue is like the spray of the wave, and, as a playwright, it is that spray that interests me. I’ve learned to stop when the work is going well, and to leave notes for myself, because however certain I am that I won’t forget, I will forget—and it’s nice to have those breadcrumbs to follow.
When I’m wise, I don’t spend my writing time answering email, because managing a career nibbles away at your time and energy in a nuisance-y way. I’m not exactly fielding queries from the Nobel Prize committee but there’s always a theater that needs a bio, or a someone who wants me to write something for the program. I take to heart the wisdom of my favorite columnist in the Guardian who advises answering all emails the day after they come in. I do my best to resist the temptations of Facebook, the Astrology Zone, and online shopping. (I confess that as soon as I typed these words I went to swimoutlet.com to buy new goggles.)
I’m usually cagey about whatever I’m working on, because there’s always the danger of talking out a creative impulse. On the other hand, it can sometimes be useful to bring up a project, because people are anxious to share what they know. Talking to people is my favorite kind of research because nobody wants information; they want stories. A fellow grad student at Yale Drama School once wrote a portentous play about Hiroshima, and afterwards, a classmate leaned over and whispered: “He might as well have a character named Research.”
When I’m not writing, I’m twitchy and anxious and teetering towards depression. When I am writing, I’m satisfied by the process of constructing something. The craft is all you can control; you can’t control whether or not your play gets produced, and if it does, you can’t control the critical response. When I thought I’d get crucified for ritualizing the Kennedy assassination in The House of Yes, I was celebrated. When I was apologetic about writing an unfashionable, realistic two-hander called Things Being What They Are, the critics were moved. On the other hand, with my recent play Slow Food, I was convinced I’d written a commercial comedy whose royalties would support me in my old age, but it has yet to be produced.
I marvel at writers who have a sense of the sellable, who can pursue an idea because they know they can sell it. I can only write what I must write which is why it’s so annoying when people say: “Hey, I’ve got an idea for you!” I never suffer from an idea shortage; the ideas are the easy part.
Many people ask where the ideas come from and it’s different for every play. My anorexic comedy Schoolgirl Figure began with a sentence I’d jotted down in a notebook: “A high school where the girls are competing to disappear.” Apocalyptic Butterflies was inspired by a Maine cousin who told me about a neighbor who delivered a load of totem poles to his son’s front yard. Slow Food began with a passive-aggressive waiter in Palm Springs who refused to bring us our food.
Sometimes the ideas come from theater history. The House of Yes is a reimagining of the Jacobean play Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Sin took the medieval notion of embodying the seven deadly sins. (I originally thought the second act would feature the cardinal virtues, but they’re not as fun to write). With my play Find and Sign, I wrote a contemporary Othello from the point of view of Iago’s wife. Please note the bounty of a liberal arts education.
Writers are like designated drivers, but instead we are designated humans, and our job is to articulate what it is to be alive. Writing requires a leap of faith, and when it’s going well, there’s a superstitious fear that the computer will eat my latest draft or that I won’t be able to finish as strongly as I’ve begun. When it’s going badly, there’s a temptation to abandon the project. When I lose faith in my talent, I trust in my slow-and-steady work ethic. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has a simple, unforgettable rule: keep your butt in the chair. Nobody stays there for eight hours, but we do have to get there.