Staring into the Abyss

Once, in grade school or in grad school, you wrote a short play or maybe just a scene. You were rewarded—with laughter or applause or a “well done.”

You thought (woe betide thee) ”I’m going to become a playwright.”

But that was then, when you were young and talented. Now you’re a fraud, unable to conceive, let alone execute, anything resembling a play (At this point, the siren song of Performance Art may beckon. Resist. Resist. Resist.)

You’re not just blocked. You’re frozen.

To help get you unstuck, let’s borrow from cognitive behavioral science.

People who are depressed often have trouble taking action. Even small things—getting out of bed, going to the store—can seem impossible.

What cognitive therapists have figured out is that motivation doesn’t necessarily precede action. Paradoxically, the reverse can be true. If you can force yourself into taking some action, then motivation may follow, which will lead to more action, and so on.

Motivation follows action.

Inspiration follows writing.

You just have to force yourself to write. (“But,” you protest, “that’s the problem we started with!)

The mistake you’re making is thinking that you have to write something original.

Here’s your assignment. Pick a play from your shelf. (If that’s not possible, then we have a second problem. In the meantime, Google up Hedda Gabler.)

Now start to type the play, as if it’s your own.

At some point early on, change the name of a character. Voila! This work of art is now a little bit yours. Now change the gender of one of the characters, the age of another.

By now you may have some ideas of your own. If not, start to make more substantial changes to the text you’re (let’s call it) fixing.

Skip some or all of that boring first scene.

Gussy up the stage directions.

Make a different character the protagonist.

And if those changes seem too radical, if they freeze you up, go back to typing the play as it exists, embellishing it where you wish.

Stop when you get too bored.

Even if you haven’t come up with an idea for your own play, the exercise is useful. You’ve learned a little bit of dramatic structure.

You know more than you did an hour ago.

That’s a good start.

The Writing Snowball

I organize my day with a To-Do List. Projects. People I’m supposed to call. Chores and appointments. But the mildly guilty secret about my to-do list is that I pad it.

The top item, every day, is Make To-Do List. When I finish writing the list, I go right back to the top and cross that item off. The little ping of satisfaction this gives me is perverse but real.

Only ten minutes into the day, but already I feel productive.


In their excellent book, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, the brother authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath write about a financial adviser named Dave Ramsey. For clients who come to him because they’re deeply in debt, Ramsey uses a technique that’s anathema to most of his peers: he calls it the Debt Snowball.

He has his clients make a list of all their debts.

Then, instead of having these clients pay off their highest interest debts first, which is the conventional advice, he advocates paying the minimum payment on every debt, and then working at paying off the smallest debt.

Relatively soon, that small debt gets paid off, and then they move on to the next smallest debt.

What Ramsey recognizes is that a mountain of debt can so demoralize one that it’s overwhelming, paralyzing. By paying off a small bill and then increasingly larger bills, his clients get a sense of progress, of momentum.

I’m not a financial adviser, and so I’m agnostic on whether or not this is good advice for people in debt.

But it’s excellent advice for writers.

Faced with all the decisions that accompany the writing of a play, it’s easy to become frozen. And when you’re frozen, the humble to-do list is your friend.

Begin your writing session by making a list of things you’ll eventually need to accomplish. Your list will include large tasks (plot out the first third of the play), medium-sized tasks (decide how to introduce the protagonist) and small ones (read for typos.)

Then, instead of worrying about the large tasks, start by checking off the small ones. Even accomplishing something tiny will motivate you to keep going. And doing small script tasks eases your mind out of the concerns of your life and into the world of the play.

You’re trying to create a Writing Snowball.

And if the first item on your list is: Make Writing To Do List, you’re guaranteed to get something done every day.

Fly Fishing with John Patrick Shanley

I have exactly one story about me and a famous person. He’s a playwright, so he’s not that famous, and I’m not really part of the story. But it’s what I’ve got.

Years ago, I was having a play produced at the Powerhouse Theatre in Poughkeepsie. The theatre also ran a conservatory, and they brought in John Patrick Shanley to speak. Shanley is the author of Doubt, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and Moonstruck, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

A student asked Shanley how he created characters, and he said that he started by finding something about the character that he liked.

“For example,” he said, “I fly fish, and I’m not good at it. But if you saw me doing it you’d like me.”

Later that night I was sitting in a pizza place with the stage manager and some actors. The door opened and in walked the playwright.

“Oh,” said the stage manager. “That’s John Patrick Shanley. I love him. I was watching him fly fish this afternoon.“

The stage manager wasn’t able to articulate what it was about Shanley’s fishing that was so lovable. The closest she could come was to say that he wasn’t aggressive about it.

If you’ve written a play, you’ve probably had the experience of feeling like you understood a character completely. He or she was easy to write. When they said something in a scene, your mouth moved.

But you’ve probably also had the reverse experience, that of having a character in your play who you don’t understand, whose lines keep changing because what they really are are things you need them to say to advance your plot.

That’s when it’s time to follow Shanley’s advice. If you like something about a character, you’re a good way towards understanding him or her.

There are two lessons here.

1) Find what you love about each of your characters.

2) If John Patrick Shanley passes you, holding bait and tackle, follow him.

Failing the Bechdel Test

A few years back, I finished writing a screenplay, a supernatural thriller called Ice. I teased it into the world, it was met with indifference, and I put it back in its virtual file, the way one does.

In the intervening years, a boisterous conversation about gender depiction—how women are portrayed in film—made me aware of the issue. There’s a writers’ site I love, that regularly reminds me that this is important.

But more than anything, what has plunked this issue into my head is the hilarious Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test, devised many years ago by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, asks three questions of a movie:

1) Does it have more than one named female character?

2) Do those characters talk to each other?

3) If so, is it about something other than a guy?

Do a quick mental check of your three favorite movies. The odds are that two out of the three don’t pass.

When it was time to do another draft of Ice, I decided to look at it through the lens of gender depiction.

I opened the file and started to read, then started to shiver. It was late at night, quiet enough that I could hear the sound of all the flesh crawling off my body.

In the first scene, a disposable female character gets horribly attacked. Later, we learn that a female character has had sex for money. (In my defense, the character who gets attacked is the same character who later sells her body, which gives her depth.)

I was more likely to describe the women by their level of attractiveness. I never said of a guy that he was “well-muscled but not in a way that says too much time at the gym.”

Ice failed the Bechdel test.

Toward the end of the previous draft, I’d become aware that I had a woman problem. I’d fixed it by giving the insignificant female characters names; Checkout Girl became Sophie. Also, I’d changed every tiny male role to a tiny female role. This had no discernible effect except to make Boulder, where the script is set, feel like Amazonia.

As a young writer I was trained to avoid verbal clichés. I would never write “throw in the towel” or “vested interest, ” phrases that click an off-switch in the reader’s mind. But no one trained me to look for the gender cliché’s that dot the script, camouflaged by own conditioning.

As an experiment, I changed the protagonist of Ice to a woman. Reflexively, I made the character five years younger, then caught myself. The simple gender swap rippled in ways that I didn’t expect; it exposed other automatic choices that I was able to fix. Not intuitive but true, the plot improved.

The best tests teach us. They measure knowledge but they also instruct. My favorite thing about the Bechdel test is that I’m is allowed to retake it.