Gregarious Expressions

by Alicia Grega

Joan Didion on screenwriting

During my 90-minute break between speech classes, I sit in an empty room and get lost in Joan Didion.

How had I still not seen the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold?

The full movie Play As it Lays is on YouTube. How had I not yet seen this, too?

I dictated a post about the content I had consumed in the course of the last week while walking in the cemetery on Saturday, but I haven’t had the chance to transpose that into some readable text.

From –

Based on arguably her most well-known novel, Play It as It Lays (1972) was a family affair, with Didion and Dunne on screenwriting duties and her brother-in-law Dominick Dunne producing. In the director’s chair sat Frank Perry, the fiercely independent filmmaker behind low-budget dramas like David and Lisa (1962) and Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970). The team-up seemed ideal given how frequently Perry’s work, like Didion’s, focused on the disenfranchisement of women and struggles with mental illness. The protagonist, Maria, played by Tuesday Weld, is a former actress turned housewife who slowly descends into inescapable nihilism. Her director husband is distant but manipulative. Her young daughter has been institutionalized for some “aberrant chemical in her brain,” and her best friend, the closeted B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), is in as dark a place as she is. As she spends her days zipping between boredom and self-destruction, the bright lights of the so-called New Hollywood become ever-grimier.

Joan Didion’s Hollywood and “Play It as It Lays,” Kayleigh Donaldson. 18 JAN 2022.

All because of Didion’s quip on screenwriting I read in a free article from this month’s Paris Review:


But screenwriting is very different from prose narrative.


It’s not writing. You’re making notes for the director—for the director more than the actors. Sidney Pollack once told us that every screenwriter should go to the Actor’s Studio because there was no better way to learn what an actor needed. I’m guilty of not thinking enough about what actors need. I think instead about what the director needs.


John wrote that Robert De Niro asked you to write a scene in True Confessions without a single word of dialogue—the opposite of your treatment for The Panic in Needle Park.


Yeah, which is great. It’s something that every writer understands, but if you turn in a scene like that to a producer, he’s going to want to know where the words are.

See the interview here (and subscribe to TPR if you can afford it):

Oooh, and one more bit from the end of Donaldson’s MUBI article:

In her 1976 article “Why I Write,” Didion remarked, “The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind […] The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.”

Yes, I realize I will have to tell my screenwriting students – we are transferring the pictures in our mind through the media into the reader/audience’s mind. It is not about writing words as much as it is about seeing it so clearly in our own imagination that even with a lousy job of describing it, there will be enough pixels transferred for the audience to enjoy seeing it too.


A few weeks ago I was on a webinar with a marketing expert, presumably from somewhere in Eastern Europe who was talking about “sneee-pitz.” The urge to say this word out loud with the accent is like an itch I am desperate to scratch. I know this must be inappropriate. Fortunately, I spend a lot of time at home with my cat who understands I am not making fun of anyone and would never tell on me even if I was. Some words are just fun to say.

And that’s funny, isn’t it? These words that stick to us … the bits of language that bounce around in our brains. Fragments. Verbal earworms. It’s never the whole song that gets stuck in your head. It’s that one bit, that specific snippet on repeat. Just a line. Hardly a quote. A sound bite.

As a writer, I’ve never known what to do with these words. The scraps.

File under great titles? Lines to write scripts around. Could this become a poem?

An excuse to procrastinate from the real work of writing by making a collage?

I made this image for my daughter whose fashionable design sense stops short of what to hang on the walls. It was too colorful for her. She wants black and white. Minimalist neutrals. Gold frames. Damn you Kardashians.

It may not count as writing but I thought it was cute enough to share. I enjoy using the visual part of my brain and the perspective play and narrative elements of collage design. I may make more of these. I’ve got plenty of snippets with nowhere to go.

-ag, july 2022

We got some ink!

Thanks to the good people at Heights-Terrace in Hazleton and Kent Jackson from the Standard-Speaker for their contributions to this project.

A video of the students introducing their characters was included with this story: -ag

Is it summer yet?

There’s no point in getting depressed about it, but work on my own personal scripts may have hit an all-time low this past year. It’s not that I stopped writing … but in the struggle to teach four college courses and guide another eight elementary school classes through the 20-week Arts Link program while working at my 20-hour-a-week nonprofit job – time to work on my own independent projects evaporated.

And I don’t think it makes me less of a writer or an artist to know without a doubt that the eight superhero plays I wrote with second and third-grade students this school year are more important than anything else I could have written during this time. The children have had a profound experience. They have participated in making something none of us were quite sure how to imagine when we started. It’s not naive to imagine the long-range impact of the shift in their worldview. This is just the beginning of what is possible. Writing is power. Effective storytelling can and will change their lives.

The personal writing I’ve done in the last year looks more like notes on projects I want to get back to work on – sprinkled with poetry and journal reflection.

I’m hoping to knock out a significant amount of my own scriptwriting in the next three months. The Intro to Screenwriting summer course I’m teaching in the next five weeks will hopefully help me get my own projects back on track as much as it helps the enrolled students get a first draft of their visions on the page.

I’ll keep you updated.

In the meantime, here’s a bookshelf portrait I thought looked cool. Maybe the first in a series … one shelf at a time? What do you see?

-ali, may 31, 2022

Free workshops in March

updated Feb. 10, 2022

I’ll be sharing a creative prompt for poem development inspired by my own process resulting in numerous well-received/published poems in this AIE NEPA workshop offered via the Pike County Library and Tunkhannock Public Library. These virtual evenings also include a short reading by each week’s visiting artist.

#MudPiePoetry -ag

Art class still-life display

holiday 2021

Her favorite season

Free Workshop on Wednesday

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 2019

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

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