This past Friday I finished the first complete draft of the screenplay I’ve been working on for the last few months. I’m feeling pretty good about the screenplay for two reasons: 1) I think it is well-written, and 2) I am FINALLY done with the first draft.
For now, I’ll focus on, and be content with, reason number two. This is because I’ll soon start sharing the draft with folks, and THEY will let me know whether they think it is well written. After I recover from that experience, it will be time to move forward with the second draft. And there is always a second draft.
Over the weekend I took myself away from writing and I worked in the garden. September in Central Ohio means pushing back against overgrown plants, rescuing plants that have been overwhelmed, dividing and transplanting perennials, and pruning and shaping trees and shrubs. It also means me standing back and looking with a cold hard eye at my garden as it is, acknowledging how far it has fallen from the garden that was in my mind, calculating ways to bring it closer to that original concept, and hatching ideas about how both the original and the reality can be made better.
On Saturday I decided to remove a low hanging branch from the persimmon tree. The branch was healthy and not offensive to the eye, but I had thought for some time that it failed to add to the beauty of the tree, and I knew that it cast too much shade on the asters that I’d planted beneath it.
Once I removed the branch I walked some distance away and looked the tree up and down. It was as though the branch had never been there. The cut was hidden by the asters and the upright and spreading nature of the tree was enhanced.
I accomplished two things with a single cut. I improved the look of the tree. I enriched the cultural conditions for the asters. Too much shade had made the asters lanky and sprawling. They had grown over and through the false cypress in their quest for sunlight. Next summer, the persimmon will be taller and broader and more symmetrical. Next fall the asters will be broader and wider and packed with bright lavender blossoms.
I’d looked and looked at that low hanging branch for more than a year. I knew that it wasn’t quite right, but I’d told myself that it wasn’t that bad, either. And the branch was there already so it was easy to leave it be, even though its presence rankled me.
Finally making the decision to remove the branch put me in mind of all of the edits and revisions I’d considered and put off over the years while working on drafts of plays and shorts stories. In every case I had become so wedded to certain paragraphs and to particular characters and plots that I couldn’t see how little they added to the whole or how much they inhibited progress elsewhere. Sure, that paragraph was plodding, certainly, this character was dull, clearly that plot line was going nowhere, but they were ALREADY THERE! The thought and the effort that it was going to take to make things better! Good lord. It made me weary.
But just because something is already there – character, plot, or errant tree limb – is not enough to justify its presence. Writer or gardener, you have to stand back. You need to cast that cold hard eye. You must acknowledge how far the reality is from the original concept. Because that’s when you start to hatch the fresh ideas. And that’s when you begin to make the garden and the writing better.
This past Saturday, I was fortunate to attend a play writing workshop led by Del Shores, the author of, among many other things, the hit play/movie/television series, “Sordid Lives.”
The workshop was sponsored by Evolution Theatre Company (ETC). ETC is the Columbus-based LGBT theater company that has produced several of my plays.
Del Shores is a fabulous raconteur, a seasoned writer, and a terrific instructor. The three writing exercises he led the class through made all of us think about characters, motivations, conflicts, and writing dialogue that sounds like it’s issuing from actual flesh and blood human beings.
We started with each student briefly introducing himself or herself to the class. Then Del presented the first exercise: choose one of your fellow students and write a prose description of a character that is based upon: that person’s words; his or her appearance; how that person presented himself or herself to the class.
But the person’s words, appearance, and presentation were simply the starting point. From there, we were to flesh out a character of our own creation. And we were to do this in just a few minutes.
I wrote: “Alice is pretty, but she doesn’t believe it. She is neediness made flesh; a tall and lovely creature who is never still, is ever in motion: pacing, talking, hands flitting in the air as she despairs over her latest failed relationship, or the calamity that is her house, or the state of the world which should always, but never seems to, focus on or revolve around her.”
Writing this way – fast and forced – was strange, difficult, and exciting.
The next exercise was to take that character and description and, in five minutes, write a monologue for him or her that involves some kind of conflict or issue.
"What does she know about it? She can’t understand. There’s no way. Not her standing up there in her powder blue suit with her hand on her heart. Her! That hatchet-faced bitch! SHE knows what it’s like? Maybe she should try living with the idea day by day. How are you going to stay fed? How are you going to work? Where’s the money going to come from? And then you think and think and think. And there’s no real choice. No real option. So you make the appointment. And you get yourself there. And those people are screaming and pushing and blocking your way and calling you a killer. And you shove your way through. And you make the decision. And you follow through. And it’s done. Done. But not really. Not ever. But what does she know? Or understand. Nothing. Ever. It’s all too far from where she lives."
More fast writing. More forced writing. Just as strange and difficult. And just as exciting.
Brand new. Bright and shiny.
Real nice. Wish we could afford this.
Gouged the wall coming down the stairs, of course.
You can patch that so easy.
Yeah. I can patch it. You know who’ll notice. Notice and say something. Mother. And Johnny.
Oh, stop. Just focus on what’s good and new. Wish we had a new one.
Talk to that husband of yours. When he comes home.
What’s that supposed to mean?
She’ll notice and she’ll say something. Mother. She always does.
What do you mean – when my husband comes home?
Right after that she’ll tell Johnny what a great thing he’s done. How he’s such a good provider. Giving me a new washing machine. Too bad that someone was careless and gouged the wall. Now he’ll have to fix that, too.
Johnny is a good provider. You’ve got a new washer. You’ve got a new house. You’ve got that new blouse and skirt. What do you want? What’s it take to make you happy?
He’s not going to patch that wall. He didn’t buy the washer. My money bought that thing. And I’ll be the one sitting on the steps with the spackle.
What do you mean - WHEN my husband comes home?
And how many days has it been?
Creating characters and dialogue and conflict on the fly was demanding and nerve-wracking and exhilarating. It also gave me confidence and encouraged me, because I did it. I created characters. I gave them problems and desires and happiness and discontent. I created a setting. I placed my characters in that setting. I set them in motion and they began to interact.
I didn’t manage in the dialogue to address many of the issues and conflicts that I’d sketched out in the character descriptions, but this was a first wash, and just the start of the process. From here is where you really start to shape and form and build.
The workshop was equal parts fun, fright, and delight. I learned a great deal. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to participate.
I was not as disciplined this past week as I’d planned to be. I was not at all consistent at sitting down, maintaining focus, and actually producing coherent words and phrases in the latest and newest draft.
But, boy, oh boy, was I able to manufacture plenty of excuses for not getting down to work.
"The laundry is piling up. The cat box needs to be cleaned. That wall needs to be painted. The garden looks like hell. We need groceries. I want to go for a bike ride. I need to get to the gym."
You name the excuse. This past week I used it.
From the other end of the room, I eyed my chair. After a moment, I picked up the laptop. I crossed the room. I sat down. I powered up the computer. I opened the document on which I've been working. I stared at the characters splashed across the screen.
I winced. I looked away. I took a breath. I looked back.
I began to read. I began to think. I began to attend.
And, invariably, what occurred is exactly what always does happen, but what I tell myself time and again simply cannot happen, not this time and certainly not today.
The words and phrases start to come.
First, I begin to read and to assess. I notice a particular sentence that can certainly be edited and improved. I observe a paragraph that comes across as a bit clumsy where it's now placed, but that it might just work better and make a little more sense if it were to move elsewhere in the draft. And, good heavens! Why did I ever think that this character would ever say something like that.?
And I'm slowly drawn in. The mechanics come first: a word changes here and another changes there. The questionable paragraph is cut from its current spot and pasted into the new position. The character makes a more fitting statement, or is rendered silent so that a different character cans speak.
And from the mechanics, I move on to the creative - fresh dialogue, new plot lines, a more nuanced character. And I keep writing.
And all I needed to do to get myself started was to sit down.