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I can and shall obey…
Ear-worms are fingers tapping your soul asking you to remember.
And I still find it so hard to say what I need to say.
What follows is mere rumination.
I’ve been imagining myself a playwright of late. Again. I’ve begun project after project…and even completed a couple (DETAILS TO FOLLOW IN THE COMING WEEKS).
When I started writing poetry, which may in fact be my first calisthenics endeavor with words, I thought, ‘this must be the hardest thing to write.’ Then I took on the short story and discovered poetry was easier than I thought…because the short story was near impossible. From there, I took on the novel…because it’s only MORE of a short, right? A longer short, if you will. How much more difficult could it be?
Was I in for a surprise! Culottes are not pants. The novel was difficult in its own unique way. I came upon issues that had nothing to do with the short story, even though they resemble one another in so many ways. I might argue that the short story is more difficult than the novel overall…because of what you have to put into it and the confined perimeters you are given and forced to squeeze those ingredients into. It’s a bit of a magic trick, really. But the novel…the endurance one needs to see it through to the end! The novel is almost a physical feat. It’s so exhausting.
All these word trials combined can’t really prepare one for playwriting. If novel writing is bringing a story to life, then playwriting is bringing characters to life. It’s about getting your characters to say precisely what they need to say. No FAT. No un-wanted words. It’s the novel without the movement, for the characters themselves perform the movement. You don’t get to DESCRIBE…you just get to talk.
My ‘mentor’ and idol, W. Somerset Maugham, once said, “Thank God, I can look at a sunset now without having to think how to describe it.” (Read his THE SUMMING UP) This was said in a sort of elation as he had moved from novel writing to play-writing. He was thrilled to be spending more time in dialogue and less tedious time building up the area around the talking. And I agree with him fully and completely.
But there is also an element of playwriting that is terrifying. It’s like removing all the trees the novel provides for shading. You are starkly naked against the stage. The reader is not going to be taking the description you wrote and running it through their imaginations and making it even bigger and better than what you originally gave them…AND crediting you with the entire picture formed by the marriage of your prose and their imaginations. The characters literally need to carry everything forward in a play. If it’s not seen and heard, it doesn’t happen.
And THIS is what I want for myself? THIS is my ultimate goal as a writer? To write conversations that must have the fortitude to stand alone? I must be crazy. Poetry makes the world prettier, short stories and novels makes the world vivid and in front of you and alive.
Plays, for the playwright at any rate, give only bodies talking. Theatre does not end with the playwright. Theatre merely begins at the end of the playwriting. The breath gets blown into the play via the director and the actors, and the dramaturge before that. The play is merely mud until those elements mould it into existence–words on paper. The playwright provides the mud and the director and actors mould it into the golem. The whole is a collaborative effort. Where a novelist needs no collaboration outside of those who polish their piece and make it its most presentable, the playwright needs a stable of people to carry their work forward. The novelist has to imagine a person sitting in a room, lounging in a chair, book in hand…their imagination knitting with the words on the page to form something greater than the sum of the novel’s parts. The playwright needs to count on the faith of many believers taking to the stage and presenting their words to a person sitting in a room, sitting in a chair, eyes wide open taking in the show. The playwright needs to step back and allow what it is they wrote to take on a new life, to become something other than what it is they wrote…something better.
I suppose there is always a collaboration. The novelist and the reader’s imagination. The playwright and the busload of people injecting the words with imagination, movement, and the business of performing them. I really must be crazy, because I do both of these things. But both are wildly rewarding in their own way. Each one gives back as much as you give into it. To see your words brought to life by actors on the stage is an alchemy I’ll never get used to. And to hear that your novel has touched a reader…untold joy. Every once in a while I reach a place of reflection and realize what these things mean to me. They are everything. The word is the light, indeed.
I’m writing a play right now, writing the conversations that will hopefully be brought to life on the stage. One must believe in that eventuality when writing a play. It is the only way for the play to be born…it must leave the page. Its characters must take flesh.
And with every line of dialogue, I remind myself that nothing can be extraneous on the page. They NEED to say only what NEEDS to be said.
And I still find it so hard to say what I need to say…