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.

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