Playwriting Workshop – Day 28 – Art

Hi playwrights, did you enjoy our last play of the challenge? Art, by Yasmina Reza, is about an argument between two friends, Serge and Marc, in which each of them tries to drag in their third friend, Ivan, to take sides and settle things. With only three characters, a very spare setting, and a focused dispute over the purchase of an all-white painting, the play is a good example of Reza’s style, which has been called “little-black-dress theater.” I saw a production of this play years ago at the Steppenwolf theater in Chicago. I remember how funny it was, in that late-90s Seinfeld sort of way, where the characters get into an endless debate over something ridiculously trivial. But underlying the humor are serious feelings of insecurity and resentment that have infiltrated the friends’ once easy relationship.

One Thing I Noticed: The characters sometimes stop in the middle of their conversation or argument and face the audience to deliver a monologue that is like a commentary on what is going on in the scene. We get the sense that we are reliving the scene as an instant replay, with the character as our guide.

One Idea: Write a play in which two friends disagree about something–some physical object, where it came from, what it’s worth, what to do about it–and drag a third and very reluctant person into their argument.

Playwriting Workshop – Day 21 – Look Back In Anger

Hi playwrights! Today we’re going to talk about the third play on our monthly reading list, Look Back in Anger, by John Osborne. A three-act play that premiered in 1956, “Look Back In Anger” features a young married couple, Alison and Jimmy, the lodger who shares their cramped attic apartment, Cliff, and, at the end of the first act, Alison’s friend Helena, who has come to visit. Jimmy is presented as a volatile, almost manic character (indeed, the play is famous for his tirades). Described as “strongly autobiographical,” the play is based in large part on Osborne’s failing marriage. It centers on the social gulf between upper-middle-class Alison and firmly working class Jimmy.

One Thing I Noticed: The character descriptions. Oh my god, the character descriptions! They are works of art. Just read these:

“Jimmy is a tall, thin young man about twenty-five, wearing a very worn tweed jacket and flannels. Clouds of smoke fill the room from the pipe he is smoking. He is a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. Blistering honesty, or apparent honesty, like his, makes few friends. To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others, he is simply a loudmouth. To be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.”
* * *
“Cliff is the same age, short, dark, big boned, wearing a pullover and grey, new, but very creased trousers. He is easy and relaxed, almost to lethargy, with the rather sad, natural intelligence of the self-taught. If Jimmy alienates love, Cliff seems to exact it –demonstrations of it, at least, even from the cautious. He is a soothing, natural counterpoint to Jimmy.”
* * *
“Standing L, below the food cupboard, is Alison. She is leaning over an ironing board. Beside her is a pile of clothes. Hers is the most elusive personality to catch in the uneasy polyphony of these three people. She is turned in a different key, a key of well-bred malaise that is often drowned in the robust orchestration of the other two. Hanging over the grubby, but expensive, skirt she is wearing is a cherry red shirt of Jimmy’s, but she manages somehow to look quite elegant in it. She is roughly the same age as the men. Somehow, their combined physical oddity makes her beauty more striking than it really is. She is tall, slim, dark. The bones of her face are long and delicate. There is a surprising reservation about her eyes, which are so large and deep they should make equivocation impossible.”
* * *
“Helena enters. She is the same age as Alison, medium height, carefully and expensively dressed. Now and again, when she allows her rather judicial expression of alertness to soften, she is very attractive. Her sense of matriarchal authority makes most men who meet her anxious, not only to please but impress, as if she were the gracious representative of visiting royalty. In this case, the royalty of that middle-class womanhood, which is so eminently secure in its divine rights, that it can afford to tolerate the parliament, and reasonably free assembly of its menfolk. Even from other young women, like Alison, she receives her due of respect and admiration. In Jimmy, as one would expect, she arouses all the rabble-rousing instincts of his spirit. And she is not accustomed to having to defend herself against catcalls. However, her sense of modestly exalted responsibility enables her to behave with an impressive show of strength and dignity, although the strain of this is beginning to tell on her a little. She is carrying a large salad colander.”
* * *

The descriptions are so full of detail and heavy with meaning that at first they may seem difficult to penetrate. They describe such specific characters that I had trouble at first conjuring them up in my mind. But the dialogue of the play matches them perfectly. That is how we really get to know the characters. Then we come back to the descriptions and say “Ah yes! That’s exactly what Jimmy is like.” Now, you may remember my earlier post on character descriptions, and the advice to keep them simple, leaving room for theater folks you will collaborate with if the play is performed to have some say in things, and to make it so that many different types of actors can play a role. Well, I think that is all sound advice, but rules are made to be broken, right? And when they’re broken so masterfully, then you have art.

One Idea: Write a scene or a play in which a musical instrument plays a significant role–is almost its own character–like Jimmy’s trumpet. Let the other characters react to the music and have the music emphasize the mounting tension of the play or contrast with the narrative arc in some noticeable way.

One More Idea: Write a play in which a later scene references a previous one. In the third act of Look Back In Anger, for example, Helena stands at the ironing board ironing, wearing Jimmy’s red shirt, just as Alison did in the first scene.

Thanks playwrights! I hope you enjoy reading our last play, Art, by Yasmina Reza, next week. Join me tomorrow to move past exercises, as we round out the month working on a cohesive play in multiple scenes.

[Also, stay tuned for a preview of next month’s challenge: Experience Journaling.]

Playwriting Workshop – Day 14 – Topdog/Underdog

Sorry for the late post playwrights! I was on the road yesterday and returned home to find my Internet was down.

It’s time to talk about the second play on our reading list for the month, Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Parks won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for this play in 2002. The committee described the play as follows:

“A darkly comic fable of brotherly love and family identity, Topdog/Underdog tells the story of Lincoln and Booth, two brothers whose names, given to them as a joke, foretell a lifetime of sibling rivalry and resentment. Haunted by their past, the brothers are forced to confront the shattering reality of their future.”

The play takes place in Booth’s cramped apartment, where Lincoln has come to live because his wife kicked him out for cheating. Lincoln, an ex-card sharp who “swore off thuh cards,” dons white face makeup to take a job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, where tourists pay money to shoot him. Booth, determined to learn his brother’s former trade, doesn’t seem to have what it takes to be a hustler and instead resorts to shoplifting to survive. The two reminisce about their childhood and share their memories of when, as teenagers, their parents left them to find their own way in the world. One minute they give each other heartfelt career advice, the next they insult each other as only brothers can. The tensions between them build to a tragic climax.

The play is about what it means to be family and what it means to be a black man in America. It is about struggling through life, but with someone else, not alone. Parks has also said it is about “who the world thinks you’re going to be, and how you struggle with that.”

One Thing (Okay, Two Things) I Noticed: Parks uses the simple stage direction “(rest),” to indicate a pause in a character’s speech, but she also quite often will just list the character’s names, one after the other, as if they are going to give a line of dialogue but then don’t. It’s almost as if the characters are tossing the awkward silence back and forth between them like a ball. She also sometimes has the characters deliver a shared line together. As she explains in this great interview in The Interval–which is chock full of insights on the craft of playwriting and the author’s creative process—she sometimes makes the decision to do this when she is revising a play for a new production.

One Idea: Write a play in which two or more characters come and go from a central “home base”: roommates coming and going from their apartment, co-workers with back-to-back shifts, a courier making daily deliveries. Have the story unfold as the characters relate to each other what has taken place in the outside world since their last meeting. Let what they choose to reveal and how they reveal it expose the nature of their relationship.

Playwriting Workshop – Day 7 – Death of a Salesman

Hi writers, we’ve reached the end of Week 1 of our playwriting workshop! As we worked on writing the component parts of a play, I hope you also enjoyed reading the first of four plays we’ll discuss this month, Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. This is of course the classic, award-winning play about Willy Loman, an aging traveling salesman. In a series of flashbacks, Willy looks back on his life, in which he has always just managed to scrape by but has never achieved the sort of success he imagined he would, and tries to determine where and why everything went wrong. The play is in two acts (plus a requiem) and has only a handful of main characters. It is about success, failure, and the American dream. It is also about the relationship between fathers and sons, the way fathers graft their unrealized dreams onto their sons, and what happens when sons become disillusioned when they discover their fathers’ faults.

Many, many people have analyzed this play over the years. If the version you read has a good introduction, then you already have some understanding of its themes and innovations. As I did with the short stories we read last month, I’m going to make only a couple of points: one thing I noticed and one idea the play gave me for my own future writing.

One Thing I Noticed: Miller really plays with time here. It’s what the play is famous for. Time collapses as Willy’s worries coalesce. This is primarily achieved through set design and stage direction. When the scene is in the present, the characters respect the wall lines of the house. When it is in the past, they are free to step through the walls to the forestage, which also doubles as the house’s back yard. With this simple trick the past and the present seem to coexist, as if everything has already played out and we are right there with Willy, sifting through the layers of sediment to figure out what happened to his life.

I recently saw a production of Macbeth in which the normal subdued lighting was switched (I think a little chime also sounded) to a glaring overhead light each time the audience was meant to understand that the words Macbeth spoke were not heard by the other characters onstage but were his own internal thoughts. This was pretty effective. Under that glaring light the audience saw Macbeth for who he really was, a man driven by ruthless ambition.

One Idea: Play with the idea of causation. Write a scene in two ways (three? four?), exploring two very different outcomes. See if, through set design, lighting, costumes, or how the characters interact with each other or move on the stage, you can present both versions simultaneously. Maybe the same exact thing is happening in the different versions until one moment, when something happens that makes the stories split off from each other and triggers the different outcomes. Are the versions alternate realities? Do they exist only in the mind of one of your characters, who is wondering “what if?” Do the versions stray from each other but then come back, so that the outcomes are essentially the same? Does this say something about fate or inevitability in your character lives?

Read/Write Challenge – Day 30

Hi readers! We’ve come to the last day of our challenge. And our last short story, A Visit of Charity,” by Eudora Welty. The story is about a young girl who has to visit an elderly person in order to earn points as a campfire girl and sets off on the bus with a potted plant to visit some old ladies in a nursing home. It is a humorous encounter between youth and age. The two bickering old ladies the girl visits descend upon her, questioning her, drawing her into their ongoing feud, and, even as she’s leaving, begging her for money. The girl is repulsed by everything about the experience. She is doing it only because she has to and can’t wait to escape. 

One Thing I Noticed: The story is written in the third person limited point of view. We are privy to the girl Marian’s thoughts, but no one else’s. In a lot of ways, this can be the best of both worlds.  The reader is not trapped in the head of a single character but can roam about and observe things independently. But there is continuity in following the experience of one character that you lose if you write from the third person omniscient point of view, which gives the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters.

One Idea: Play with genre. Try writing one kind of story in the style of another. “A Visit of Charity,” for example, is a humorous little drama that unfolds like a horror story. The old ladies have animal and plant qualities; when they laugh they sound like bleating sheep and their hands feel like clinging petunia leaves. The place feels damp and “smells like the interior of a clock.” We see the terror rising in the main character, until she finally breaks free, pursued, asked to stay for dinner, as if the place itself wants to consume her. Try writing a suspenseful love scene, a mystery in the form of a fairy tale (or vice versa), a ghost story that unfolds as a romantic comedy, or a sci-fi story as political satire.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 24

Hi readers! Our second-to-last story for the month is Home,” by Alice Munro. It’s a bit longer than some of the other stories we’ve read, but perfect for a lazy summer Sunday. Something interesting I learned researching the story is that it was first published back in 1974, when Munro was in her mid-40s. She continued to revise it over the next 30 years, finally publishing it again in 2014, in a collection of newer stories called Family Furnishings

One Thing (Okay, Two Things) I Noticed: This story showcases a form Munro perfected, which I’ve seen described as a pastiche or “not quite story,” and which she herself described as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred. There is no clearly defined problem for the characters to solve or obstacle for them to overcome. Instead, as one article puts it, her characters are portrayed “not at [a] crossroads exactly but for whom life is a series of crossroads” whose choices have worked “a narrowing” in their lives.

And Munro’s character descriptions are just incredible, plucking out finely-observed details about people that say so much about who they are. Just listen to the narrator’s description of her stepmother Irlma:

“Irlma is a stout and rosy woman, with tinted butterscotch curls, brown eyes in which there is still a sparkle, a look of emotional readiness, of being always on the brink of hilarity. Or on the brink of impatience flaring into outrage. She likes to make people laugh, and to laugh herself. At other times she will put her hands on her hips and thrust her head forward and make some harsh statement, as if she hoped to provoke a fight. She connects this behavior with being Irish and with being born on a moving train.”

One Idea: Write about revisiting your childhood home. Describe how it is the same or different than when you lived there. If you no longer have access to this place, imagine what it is like now.

One More Idea: Write a scene in which you reveal your characters’ personalities through a conversation in which they gossip about someone in their community who’s done something the speakers consider scandalous.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 23

Hi readers! Ready for another short story? Today let’s look at a piece of contemporary fiction, The Boundary, by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in the January 29, 2018, issue of The New Yorker.  The story is told from the point of view of a teenage girl whose immigrant family works to keep up the vacation house where a writer (maybe the author?) and her family are staying while on vacation. We learn quite a lot about the narrator through her voyeuristic recounting of the family’s stay.

Incredibly, Lahiri taught herself Italian and wrote this story first in Italian and then translated it into English. Check out this earlier interview–in which she discusses the difficulties and rewards of writing in a different language and of translating her own work–and an excerpt from her book, In Other Words, her dual-language memoir about what prompted her to reinvent her writing life in this way.

One Thing I Noticed: As Lahiri notes in the interview, there are things about this story that we as readers simply don’t know. We know that this is a vacation home, maybe in Italy, but nothing more specific. We know that the narrator’s parents are immigrants struggling to fit in in a foreign place, but nothing about where they’ve come from. We only know what the narrator knows or cares about and, to her, the place where her parents came from, which they may not talk very much about, is simply not worth mentioning.

You might note this, as a reader, and appreciate the fact that it gives the story a more universal applicability. Cool, you think, these could be the experiences of a lot of different people, in a lot of different places.

But as a writer, this is a pretty big deal! One of the most paralyzing things about sitting down and putting words on a blank page is the thought that you need to know everything about a place, or a person, or a situation, before you can write. Unless you’ve lived a jet-setting, adventurous life, writing what you know gets boring. But writing what you don’t know seems risky. You might misapply a fundamental law of physics if you try to write sci-fi, or write about a historical character using a household appliance that was not invented during her lifetime. So yes, sometimes research is necessary. But sometimes it isn’t. If you don’t know something, just say your character doesn’t either and charge right ahead, describing things just as your character sees them and just as he or she understands them. You can use point of view to get yourself off the hook sometimes.

One Idea: Think of a vacation you have been on. Write about yourself and your fellow vacationers from an outsider’s point of view, someone who knows nothing about you except what can be observed. Treat yourself anonymously. Tell us something about your narrator based on what details about you he or she notices.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 17

Hi readers, ready for another story?  Check out A Small Sacrifice,” by Yiyun Li, a story about a woman whose married lover buys her a pet pig named Tiny, who is supposed to stay small but grows to the size of a normal pig. The narrator’s landlord has been contacting her every day to remind her the pig must go, and today is finally the day that it is set to happen.

One Thing I Noticed: Li’s use of symbolism. The cute little pet, like the narrator’s affair with the married man, has grown too large. The narrator knows the pig must go, just as she knew the man would eventually return to his wife and child. The pig symbolizes the emotional and physical burden of a relationship begun on a whim (and, for the man, ended on a whim too), that is born by the woman.

One Idea: Write about a character who is in a predicament, made urgent by his or her denial or procrastination in finding a solution. Things have become desperate.

Okay, One More Idea: Tell a story through the imagined commentary of a dead person, played like a reel in the head of a loved one who can’t adjust to the silence that person’s voice once filled. [The narrator in this story can’t stop thinking about what her deceased mother would say.]

Read/Write Challenge – Day 16

Hi readers, I have a confession to make. I read today’s story, The Shawl,” by Cynthia Ozick, before I chose it for this month’s challenge. But I’ve always meant to go back and read it more carefully. It is one of those stories that packs a dual punch: technical prowess and a subject matter that will cleave your heart in two. There are certain stories–Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” comes to mind, Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day”–that stay with you long after you have read them, that touch on something so real about the human experience, that they refuse to recede in your memory. This story is one of those. 

It is still devastating, but on a second reading I was able to see so much more about it too.

One Thing I Noticed: The poetry! With a few well-placed line breaks, whole passages of “The Shawl” could be poetry. Just look at the first two sentences:

Stella, cold, cold,
the coldness of hell.
How they walked
on the roads together,
Rosa with Magda curled up
sore breasts,
wound up
in the shawl.

Ozick also uses a number of poetic devices throughout the story.

Metaphor: saying that something IS something else, to suggest a likeness  between the two things

  • Stella’s knees are tumors, her elbows are chicken bones
  • Magda, wrapped in the shawl, “is a squirrel in a nest”
  • Rosa’s dried-up milk duct is an “extinct, dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole”
  • Magda’s tooth is an “elfin tombstone of white marble”
  • a “long viscous rope of clamor” spills from Magda’s mouth when she finally makes a sound
  • when she sees what will happen to Magda, Rosa’s skeleton is a ladder that her scream (and not just any, but a wolf scream) ascends through

Simile: comparing one thing to another thing as a way of describing it

  • Magda has “a pocket-mirror face” and “little pencil legs”;
  • her eyes are “blue as air” and “horribly alive, like blue tigers
  • her “smooth feathers of hair are nearly as yellow as the star sewn on Rosa’s coat”
  • she used to be “as wild as one of the big rats that plundered the barracks at daybreak looking for carrion”
  • the soldier has “a black body like a domino”
  • flung by the soldier, Magda is “swimming through the air … like a butterfly”

Personification: giving inanimate objects human (or maybe animal) characteristics

  • the lilies in the distance are “innocent … lifting their orange bonnets”
  • the electric fence sounds like “grainy sad voices–they lament, they “chatter wildly”
  • the “sunheat murmur[s] of another life”

And finally, there are just some really unusual verb/subject/object combinations:

  • Rosa learns from Magda “how to drink the taste of a finger in one’s mouth”
  • Magda’s “little pencil legs” are “scribbling this way and that”
  • “[a] tide of commands hammer[s] in Rosa’s nipples

One Idea: Write a story in which a character is going through some incredible ordeal. Use metaphor, simile, and personification to draw the reader into the physicality of what the character is experiencing.

Read/Write Challenge – Day 10

Hi readers! My apologies for this late post! I was traveling most of the day yesterday and could not find a moment to sit down at my computer. Although I often do my daily writing and post it the next day, I try to keep the weekend posts current for you. But remember there is no need to wait for me! Our whole reading list of weekend short stories can be found here.

Yesterday we read The Yellow Wall-Paper,” by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, an 1892 story about the progression of a woman’s mental illness that reveals much about then-contemporary attitudes toward women’s health. The narrator tells us, through a series of diary entries, that she has been diagnosed–by her husband and brother, both doctors–with a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.” Her treatment consists of removal from ordinary life and tasks (she is not permitted to work or to do anything intellectually stimulating, like writing), a lot of fresh air, and rest. This seems to have quite the opposite of the desired effect, as the narrator becomes obsessed with the intricate wall-paper of the room she is confined to in a vacation home she is staying in with her husband. We witness the steady loss of her grasp on reality.

The story is considered an important early work of feminist literature, revealing the oppression of 19th century patriarchal society and the ill-effects of a woman lacking any sort of life outside the home. Read more here about how the story was inspired by the author’s own experience.

The story is also often placed in the gothic/macabre/horror genre, for its intimation of a haunting and exploration of mental illness.

One Thing I Noticed: This story makes very effective use of an unreliable narrator: a narrator who is too subjective to be entirely credible, whose personal experience does not correspond to reality, or who, frankly, we suspect might be lying to us (or to herself). The first time the narrator mentions the damage “the children” have done to the nursery, we accept this as true, but it becomes clear as the story goes on that the narrator herself is likely the one who has done these things, over her period of confinement. This realization makes us question other things that the narrator reports, such as what her husband and their housekeeper have done or said to her.

In some ways, you have an unreliable narrator problem any time you write from the first-person point of view, because there is no such thing as a perfectly objective character. But in cases of mental illness, altered states, and stories told from more than one character’s point of view, the unreliability can be an effective tool for engaging the reader in the story. We are not passively receiving this story, but actively trying to figure out which parts of it are true and which are imagined.

One Idea: Write a story in which your character becomes obsessed with something. Let this obsession unfold over time through a series of diary entries or other writings (blog posts, e-mails, notes from therapy sessions, etc.).

And now, on to our weekday freewriting sessions! If you’re new to the challenge, read more here about how we are working this month with literary writing prompts. Happy writing!