Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cut it down: a regrettably long post on why brevity matters

When I was fifteen, I had a teacher whose name was Mr. Campanale, and he changed my writing forever.  This is how he did it:

1. We would sit and look at my sentences.
2. He would point to a word and say "Do you need this?"
3. The answer was always no.

There are many talented writers who use lots and lots of words, and there are also times where lots of words are necessary.  But I think most people use too many fucking words, and that lots of them mistakenly believe that that is what makes good writing.  If you ask me, you should not only use fewer words, you should use as few as possible.  Here are some reasons why:

1. Secrets.
Just as it's good for an actor to have a secret -- something that makes them a little inscrutable and excites the audience -- it's good for a writer to have at least one.  If you've got too many words on the page, you're probably giving things away when you don't need to be.  Let the secrets inform your choices, and don't feel like you need to always tip your hand.

2. Cleanliness.
If you've got too many words and you're not explaining too much, you're over-embellishing.  That quote attributed to Coco Chanel  -- "take one thing off before you leave the house" -- applies in every artistic discipline.  Because too much stuff creates clutter and noise, and the good parts lose their impact.

3. Style.
Supposedly, Dorothy Parker sat next to Calvin Coolidge at a dinner and said, "Mr. Coolidge, I've made a bet against a friend who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you."

He said, "You lose."

I had to look up Dorothy Parker's half of the conversation; I've always remembered Coolidge's.

4. Collaboration.
All theatre is teamwork, including playwriting.  Even when writing alone, you are collaborating with your actors and director.  (Through time and space! You are magic.)  Leave everyone room to do their job.  I talked about that here, with respect to stage direction and design, but it's true in dialogue, too.  By explaining less, you leave your actors more room for secrets and your director with more questions to ask them.

Okay then, asshole, what's your point?
When you write your shit, look at it and say to yourself, If I take out this word, does the meaning change? If the answer's no, take it out.

And by "meaning" I don't necessarily mean intelligibility.  Maybe what you want to get across is "this guy's nervous and he's blabbing about nonsense," and that's a legitimate thing to communicate.  So I'm not saying you need to get rid of the blabbery; just make sure you're using the best parts of it.

This is something I still work at, and I think a good example is my 2008 play We Three.  There's a long monologue at the end of the first act, and I know, looking back, that it's too long.  I got too excited about what I could do with that monologue, and I overwrote.  Maybe this week I'll see how much I can cut, and give you a before-and-after.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2013: a to-do list

I'm not much for New Year's resolutions, but I do need to continue to push myself this year.  If I don't get into grad school, I need to be a more competitive candidate for next time, and if I do, I want to acquit myself well when I get there.  So here are some things:

1. Write a new ten-minute play.
I have written one before, but it was just stupid, largely because it hinged on a joke didn't work.  I had an idea the other day, though, that I think fits the format really well: the situation has a natural time limit and high stakes that necessitate a weird level of intimacy between strangers.  I'll talk more about that when I get it written.

2. Work more with time.
Time is super interesting, and I haven't really engaged with it much in my writing.  The amount of time we spend on things says a lot about how much they matter to us, and that's a big vein of emotion to tap.

3. More female characters, especially protagonists.
My last two complete plays have had two male characters and one female character, and in both cases, the protagonist was male.  Time to tip the scale back toward the middle.  (This is an affecting and eloquent presentation of why that is so important.)

4. Apply for/enter more things.
Pretty self-explanatory.  You can't win if you don't play.

That's not an exhaustive list by any means, but I think that's a good start.  Meet me back here in June and we'll see how I did.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What I think about when I've written too many Statements of Purpose

All my applications are in (woo!), although I still need to do some heavy lifting on the financial aid/scholarship front.  It's great to be done, but I'm kind of woogly on the question of whether I'm going to get in anywhere.

I thought I was pretty burned out on writing after spending so much time (about four months?! fuck) on applications, but my brain never stops sloshing around, and I've had a couple of new ideas.

1. An interactive game/puzzle theatrical experience, kind of like a haunted house.
- Audience members could go through in small groups and solve puzzles to progress.
- Actors would communicate in a non-English language with vocabulary that the audience members would start to pick up on.  I think a movement-based one would be best -- a clap means something, a stomp means something else -- because the vocabulary would be very clear and easy to improvise.
- So the story would drop audience members inside a foreign/alien/indecipherable culture?

2. It would be really fun to affect audience experience outside the theatrical space, ostensibly before the play has begun, and see how that could change response to a play.  If you see a couple in an ugly fight outside on the sidewalk, and then you go inside and watch a love story, do you still believe the love story?
- There could be multiple groups of actors at various points outside the theater -- in the parking lot, at the bus stop (ohh, or on the bus) working with a common theme or motif.
- You could change the theme up for different nights.
- It would be cool (theoretically) to stage a mugging or something, but crazy unsafe, so oh well.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Arbitrary list: good objects for magical realism

I like a nice mix of slightly-old-things-in-your-attic and odds-and-ends-of-nature.  That's what magical realism often feels like to me -- stuff we make and use, mashed up with stuff that exists independently of our actions.

- raw egg
- bowl of snow
- string/twine
- hand-crank flashlight
- bruise/s
- bottles (glass or plastic)
- tin cans
- telephone wire
- water stain
- old blanket
- marbles
- earwax
- car horn
- facepaint
- something burning in the oven