I’ve been hard at work the past few days trying to focus my ongoing study of alternative story structure into something that looks like a Creative Writing Workshop that other people can use to kickstart a new project or maybe just taste-test as an inspiring exercise for the evening.
It’s all about taking risks and having the courage to take a route that hasn’t been proven yet.
So, as part of the workshop, I’m going to attempt to share passages from my unproduced full-length play Pepper Canyon Blues. It’s been in a state of hibernation
since I ran out of desire to court continued rejection from strangers
since I took on too many paying jobs and continue to cycle in a burnout spiral
since the pandemic tried to kill theatre, too
I do believe in this play and time away has not killed my passion for it. If anything, I am more determined not to let this world I have created atrophy in the back of my mind, unseen by everyone except a handful of Point Park MFA students who saw something of value in it as well.
In honor of not giving up or in at least learning from my mistakes, I’d like to reserve time in my future to make sure this “Concept Play in 11 Tracks” – memories in the life of a tribute band from Scranton – is the best work I can shape. It may never please those readers who can’t comprehend the worth of a pleasure shaped unlike from the patriarchal orgasmic arc, but… I am for now, still very in love with this play.
Oh, and join us for the workshop if you can and see this post by Oct. 20, 2021. It’s a Zoomer so you can do it from home in your pajamas. It’s also gonna be a little weird, but it won’t be boring. xo-ali
Self-care is making time for yoga in the morning. It’s meditation, of course. Just lighting a candle. Self-care is often letting the work wait another minute, although sometimes it is showing up when you don’t want to, shocking yourself out of procrastination, resisting the temptation to push boundaries and see just how much you can get away with. It’s feeling good about getting s%&t done.
First, let the work be what you love. Slow down. Use all of your senses.
Have a cup of tea. Sing along to your favorite songs.
Self-care can be a matter of not looking in the mirror, or trying to trick Zoom dysmorphia with lipstick. Self-care is choosing sneakers even though the heels look better. Sometimes, it’s choosing the heels because they make you feel powerful and confident. It’s choosing to smile even when things hurt. Self-care is accepting the compliment without depreciation.
Self-care is listening to poetry; writing poetry, buying yourself presents – like new art supplies, a ring that reminds you to breathe, clothes that fit loose and don’t itch, real wool socks to keep your feet warm.
It’s making healthy choices for yourself and the planet (when possible). It’s getting vaccines and annual exams. Sometimes it’s as simple as chocolate, a new pair of glasses, or going for a walk in the middle of the day.
Self-care is believing in your worth, skill, knowledge and talent even when others don’t seem to get it, or don’t seem to care at all (the worst!).
It’s forgiving the people who didn’t love you as much as you wanted them to and forgiving yourself for the desire.
Self-care is letting your grown-up daughter get the check and feeling proud you made a good person. It’s trying not to spend every cent you save. It’s asking for help when you need it and not judging yourself when you make a mistake. It’s talking to yourself like you’d talk to your sister, your daughters, dear friends, or a struggling student who wants to improve.
Self-care is satisfaction that you’ve done enough. It’s not giving up on hope, on joy. It’s learning to love your own company, and make the place where you are the place you want to be. It’s beginning again every day with an open heart and an open mind, always being kind without wanting anything in return because it feels good to give.
I’m grateful to have stumbled upon Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative this year. Experiments with structure have been part of my writing process for a long time. Some of those experiments have been better received than others, but I always feel successful for having conducted the experiment. Is there only one acceptable result? And that would be what? Popularity? Box office success? Critical acclaim? Respect of peers? Right – we have different benchmarks. Having read a spectrum of feminist theory and literature since the early ‘90s, the masculine rules of script writing began to concern me in grad school. Was it harder for female artists to succeed in the arts because they had been socialized as women – to be receptive, to listen, to cater to, to accommodate, to not be perceived as too aggressive, too ambitious, too intimidating, etc.? Do female characters have to act “like men” in order to be interesting? This is a yang paradigm given preference to the yin – you can separate it from sex, from gender. tender softness is not weak slow down dark is not bad, is not negative Balance is a virtue. No one values the inhale over the exhale – or vice versa – do they? There is no sigh without first taking in air. No output without input. So why is the “masculine” valued over the “feminine,” given more credit, allowed to oppress, suppress, (punish), (doubt), interrupt, deny, judge, restrict, overpower, overrule, override, repress. It is mostly men who decided what makes a script good or bad and success meant writing according to this collective wisdom. During grad school, I began researching what I would call the “passivity project” for lack of a better word. It’s not that I wanted to write passive characters – victims who were acted upon instead of taking action. But … shouldn’t the yin weigh as heavily as the yang in all things, including storytellling? Were the nuances of craft being neglected because men are fixated on the form of their own climax? In Alison’s book, I found confirmation of the questions I had been pondering. Alison acknowledges the elegance of the wave at the same time she questions the monopoly of the traditional “arc.”
“Its rise and fall traces a motion we know in heartbeats, breaking surf, the sun passing overhead. There’s power in a wave, its sense of beginning, midpoint, and end; no wonder we fall into it in stories. But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life, Why not draw on them, too?
She cites the “Coriolis force” as a pattern of personal preference she’s come to embrace. And I’ve been emboldened to continue my exploration of alternative structures. There remains a risk that as we stray from Aristotelian convention and Freytag’s triangle that our work will be underestimated and misunderstood. I often refer to my script Pepper Canyon Blues, which I put on the back burner after a certain number of rejections. Spanning two decades in the life of a Scranton tribute band who performs the songs of a legendary ‘60s-’70s (Laurel Canyon-like) band from Manchester that I made up, the play is written in scenes structured like the tracks of a vinyl record album. It was a conscious decision on my part to craft scenes which acted like songs might over the course of an album – an opening number that sets the tone, a love song, a dark or sad song, a comedic number, nostalgia, an abstract, poetic track, a triumphant number, a revealing confession, an encore. Inspired in part, by the time I spent as a journalist who hung out with musicians but wasn’t one of the band, the scenes also question memories, the way we (choose) to remember or talk about key moments. The feedback I received from a reader at the Austin Film Festival scolded me because he never doubted the band would get back together. Okay… but that wasn’t the point of the play. Who wants to watch the version where the band does not play the reunion concert? It’s not even a spoiler for me to share this. I’m not going to tease you with that shit. Will they or won’t they? Of course they fucking do. There are some moments of doubt, but because they are artists, it’s something they all have to do for whatever their personal reasons are. It is destined. Was this concept not a worthy experiment? Should I have to explain it? Did I do it wrong? Does a play shaped like an album have to follow the arc, too? I could go on – believe me, my notes on this are building as I create a workshop lesson on alternative structures. Writing against the grain on tradition. There are the alternatives of which Alison writes, and what else … Russian dolls (written from the inside out?) staircase fire escape carousel, Ferris wheel, fun house bento box – compartments and divided compartments and sauce cups within them, stacked…
And then do we have to place those scenes in chronological order?
In the first Dyonisia festival with the Jason Miller Playwrights’ Project, we mapped the different rooms of a fictional Scranton boarding house, The Providence Arms, and each participating writer was assigned a room in which their scene would take place.
What else – solar system: unique planets in orbit around a star.
Send me your ideas! I’d love to hear them and I will credit you, of course. -ag
Standing in the spot I’ve made sacred in the cemetery, where I’ve stopped to pray on so many walks, I take a few breaths, feel the breeze on my skin, look up as a funeral procession drives by.
Girls’ weekend retreat we read Seven Wise Women in the Charnel Ground. I sketched out the idea for a painting I have not had time to paint.
This day, I imagine a narrative structure – seven contributions … about grief? Seven characters; seven narrators.
Prose poetry play/monologue
the impermanence of sangha – from gang to team to club to clique to support group to co-workers
panic attacks agoraphobia
self / body / ovaries / identity they removed my organs – am I still a woman?
Then the last thing you expect to happen does. Enlightenment? -ag
Koan for reference.
Seven wise sisters planned a spring journey. One of them said, “Sisters instead of going to a park to enjoy the spring flowers, let’s go to see the charnel grounds.”
The other said, “That place is full of decaying corpses. What is such a place good for?”
The first women replied, “Let’s just go. Very good things are there.”
When they arrived, one of them pointed to a corpse and said, “There is a person’s body. Where has the person gone?”
“What” another said, “What did you say?” And all seven sisters were immediately enlightened.
Inda, Lord of the Gods, was moved by their awakening and showered flowers down onto them. He offered them whatever they needed for the rest of their lives. One of the sisters replied, “We have everything we need. But please give us a tree without roots, some land without light or shade, and a mountain valley where a shout does not echo.”“Ask anything else, holy ladies,” replied Indra, “and I will gladly provide it. But I don’t have those things to give you.”
“If you don’t have them,” said the woman, “how can you help others liberate themselves?” At this, Indra took the sisters to visit the Buddha.
When the Buddha learned why they had come, he said, “As far as that’s concerned, Indra, none of the arahants has the slightest clue either. Only great bodhisattvas understand this matter.”
Fixated on crescent moon reflection in a window across the street, I can’t tell the difference between crickets and cicadas, the music that started with a car down the block, and children crying next door.
“What are you crying for? she screams at a toddler. That’s not the sound of a whip cracking, but this is what my mind hears.
“No one wants to be around you because you’re an ass,” does not sound like something I would say to a child let alone scream loud enough for the neighbor to hear.
A thought I had the other day – astonished at the hatred in her voice – speaking to the children with contempt and disgust – Is this how she feels about herself?
Does she, like the adored man who abandoned me, not know what love feels like?
As you may have noticed, I enjoy observing and capturing the process …
This morning while working on the syllabus for my Writing Workshop class at Lackawanna this fall, one of the playwriting books I’m drawing on for exercise ideas sparked thoughts of the first draft I finished in April.
I scribbled my thoughts down on the back of a Redner’s receipt while finishing my first (only) cup of coffee.
I don’t expect these notes will make a lick of sense to you. But they will, I assure you, improve upon, if not solve. some of the problems with Pussy Grabs Back that I tried to ignore during that early creative process. Writing are editing are two different tasks. We can’t censor ourselves while we are engaged in the raw, magical act of creative weaving. But that work is loose and sloppy and weak with holes. It’s the going back without fear to take pieces apart, clean them, put them back together again or toss them out and replace them that makes a work something an audience can process.
In the end, I hope I can create something that has value for others and is more than a documentation of work, sweat, and ill-wrought ideas -ag 8/11/2021
Most writers I can think of talk about this time … the silence between words, the pause – as necessary to the creative process. Daydreaming is essential. Writers need time to stare off into space, to sit and simmer on low. I don’t have to tell you how difficult the last year of teaching has been during the pandemic. I’ve already alluded to the long hours spent staring at the computer screen. And I’ve tried hard to stay balanced, to not become a poster child for all to real dangers of burn out. Other than the relief of having pulled off the jobs, I’m not sure how well I’m doing. More low-sugar smoothies and tennis dates with family are good signs.
Since hastily finishing the first draft of a play in April, I haven’t written much beyond scribbles on paper and notes to my students. Somewhere in handwriting there are words I didn’t have the brutality to share – there are losses I understand I am supposed to “be over,” so my mourning has quieted. There’s the beginning of a piece I wrote during a mud pie creativity workshop that may not be worth pursuing. There are notes from California vacation with Mom and Stacy that should become a short story or part of a novel but … this will take time.
I’ve got plenty of unfinished projects to pull up and new ideas in my head. How are there not more adult stories about college theatre students? And there are fall classes to prepare for, a writing workshop in particular that is pulling me back to my own writing, but right now is the time to sit and breathe and restore balance. The words will wait. They are so patient. I’ll let you know when it’s time.
My reading has not suffered. Tyler Mahan Coe’s second season of Cocaine and Rhinestones came at the perfect time. The books by playwrights teach me things about myself – Quiara Alegria Hudes’ My Broken Language and Jen Silverman’s We Play Ourselves. Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters is as much about her as it is about Kerouac, obviously. SHE is a writer. Rachel Cusk’s Second Place stopped me. I need to spend more time with her and will do so this summer. A quote I scribbled across post-it notes: “Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so much from the things we ourselves have invented? …I have wanted to be free my whole life and I haven’t managed to liberate my smallest toe.” – Rachel Cusk, Second Place.
Kudos to Aimee Lou Wood (Laurie Nunn’s Sex Education, NETFLIX) for making me cry my eyes out at the end of Uncle Vanya.
SFP and Angelica Films filmed the 2020 West End revival of Chekov’s play after it was interrupted last March due to COVID. Previously aired on the BBC, the film debuted on PBS’s Great Performances last night.
Credit goes to Chekhov, of course, and to Conor McPherson’s adaptation which gave this stunning closing monologue the update it needed to penetrate the tragedy of my cynicism.
It is a piece, perhaps that cannot succeed without context, without the subtext of four acts of drama that come before it. If I had only read Chekhov’s final words, external of production, I would have likely rolled my eyes. McPherson’s translation pays homage to the pure and inspiring sentiments of Chekhov’s indefatigable Sonia while grounds her words in a way that makes them palatable. Not just palatable, but potent. I am reminded of Beckett who famously wrote (years after Chekhov): “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (The link between these two writers is evident although comparisons are more often made between Waiting for Godot and The Three Sisters.)
I had to get McPherson’s text just so I could compare his translation with the traditional one. I post a clipping here with the traditional translation below.
Still, I doubt they are as genuinely moving without Wood’s performance and without the more than two hours of play that build a bridge between the frustration of Chekhov’s characters and our own.
VOITSKI. [To SONIA, stroking her hair] Oh, my child, I am miserable; if you only knew how miserable I am!
SONIA. What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile–and–we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. [SONIA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest. [The WATCHMAN’S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME. VOITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits her stocking] We shall rest.
On the latest episode of People Taking Shots at Scranton, we find one of the city’s own golden boys – playwright Stephen Karam – dragging Scranton down while praising Terrence McNally in a The Dramatist tribute issue to the legendary playwright (Jan/Feb 2021).
Maybe my next play needs to be a hot and steamy romance? Set in Scranton, of course.