By Deen, member of the 2009 Emerging Writers Group
In a recent email, I told a friend of mine off-handedly that I had writers block. (She's the lead guitarist and songwriter for her band, the Scamps.) In reply, she described her own experience of being abandoned by the muse:
“It can be the worst. Nothing makes me question myself more than that. To me, it feels like less of a block and more of a spiraling pit of self-loathing – the harder it gets to write, the more I doubt anything I write is any good...”
I thought that was a pretty spot-on description. I once heard Kate Winslet in an interview say that at the beginning of every new project she felt a terrible anxiety that finally everyone was going to realize she had no idea what she was doing. I can relate. It is sheer faith that reminds me that I've done this before, that leads me to consider the possibility that I am not actually an abject failure and impostor.
I have begun to wonder of late if I don't in fact hate writing now that I have become a Writer. There was a time when writing was my solace and my redemption, and more than that, a blessing: Through the transformation of my own struggles, others could also find refuge. Now that I am a Writer, it is the struggle to write that brings me misery. I must produce constantly (or at least be miserably dedicated in the attempt) in order for me to deserve the luxury of not working a soul-sucking job, deserve the title of Writer, deserve even the very air I breathe. So where does a Writer turn for comfort when the act of writing is no longer a balm for the soul? If you're me, you bake a lot of bread. (If I was a professional baker, I'm certain I would have “bakers block” and be a prolific writer. ... though I do make a lot of dough.)
So here I am, a Writer (with a capital W). I'm sitting at my desk with my laptop to my left and my pad to my right, an assortment of pens in front of me on top of my journal, and I'm thinking to myself: What do I want to write about? Well, I definitely want it to be meaningful. And political. And important. And also good. Something new, something to broaden my horizons a bit... There's the inequity of wealth in this country and the Occupy Wall Street movement – I've marched a few times, I could write about that. Or there's the horror of being entangled in family court (I worked a day job there for a year, I have an insider's perspective). Or there's Africa and child soldiers and genocidal wars. The poor treatment of the lowest castes in India or the Hindu-Muslim riots (I am from India after all). I've always wanted to write about whales...
It's about at this point when I get up, move to the kitchen, and start tossing flour in a bowl to feed my pet yeast.
This may be controversial to say, but I am not convinced that plays change the world. I am not convinced that seeing a play makes anyone change the way they act towards other people. I cannot think of one single play I've seen that's changed my behavior about anything. I have seen plays that have made me think about slave labor in China, but I have not stopped buying the products that employ that labor. I have seen stories about immigrants, people with AIDS, and 30-something people with relationships issues – and I still have sympathy for those with AIDS, still believe in immigrant rights, and still think 30-somethings with white privilege who moan about life being hard are spoiled.
I don't think I have ever seen a play that has made me change the way I live. What I do think plays do is open our hearts to possibility, and this is no small thing. Because we are exposed to different people, human fallible people who struggle against overwhelming odds, we are moved, we are opened just enough... so that when a comparable life experience happens to us, we are in a place to receive it and to be changed by it. But make no mistake, it's the life experience that changes us, that changes the course of our life and of this world.
Writing is something I do, but I sometimes mistake it for who I am, for the most important part of me. When I'm sitting at my desk, I often think my greatest contribution to this world is the play that I have yet to write, the one that will change everything, the play that will make me famous and be taught in colleges around the country. But this is a mistake.
I once wrote a story about an architect who ended up homeless and living on the streets. He was loved by all who came into contact with him and he even changed the life of a young boy, giving him hope when there was none. Yet the homeless architect died thinking he was a failure.
I wrote the story, but I find myself learning that lesson over and over and over again. The best thing I have to offer this world is me, the plays are secondary. The play I write is a projection of how I see the world, a picture of what is possible – but it's me, this person writing this now, I am the virus that infects this world for good or ill, to spread rage or beauty. Do I want to spread self-loathing and despair (because I can't get past my writers block), or do I want to spread something else?
So this is my humble advice to other writers with writers block: Be a good writer, but be a better human being. What we write about is the human condition, but how tragic if we aren't fully living it. How tragic if all we can see is the script we are not writing and nothing else. Our characters aren't loved and remembered and embraced because they're Nobel Prize winners – they're loved because they are flawed and because they struggle, and they do so with others. That's life – the messiness of human relationships, the difficulty of figuring out how to be in this world when everyone is focused on what to do.
Every time I get writers block, I must die again to remember who I am. Over and over and over. It's like I have a very thick skull or something. How to let go of something I am grasping not with my hands, but with my very being – this sense that in order to be worthwhile, I must be successful? How ironic is life that in order to have something, we must let go of it.
If you will indulge me, I'll end in the manner of an old Sufi poet I'm fond of:
Deen says, go ahead, challenge God to a duel like I did. He'll knock you on your ass for sure, but He'll pick you up with a big, wet kiss.
Deen hopes you had a splendid Thanksgiving and ate lots of pie. His solo play, DRAW THE CIRCLE, will be produced at InterAct Theatre (Philadelphia) in early April 2012. For more info, please visit: deentheplaywright.weebly.com.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.