By Deen, member of the 2009 Emerging Writers Group
It can be very difficult to talk to a writer. I sympathize with your plight. We find large portions of the people we meet insensitive to our sensitivities, and we fault you for that. At least I do.
To get to the heart of the matter, you seemingly-nice-person-I've-just-met-at-a-party are dangerous and what makes you particularly dangerous is that you have no idea of your destructive capabilities. You bandy about small talk questions like so many Hostess Cupcakes at a high school hot box, but in fact you unknowingly lay a mine field that I must cross to hold up my part of this polite chit-chat, and I find it rather upsetting that you look so innocent doing it.
So once and for all, I am going to explain why every question you have ever asked me is wrong. (I would appreciate it if you would take notes.)
Questions Not to Ask a Playwright
#1. What kinds of things do you write about?
I'm not a textbook writer. I can't say, “The aquatic life of great white sharks living off the coast of Brooklyn.” I'm a playwright! If every play I write is about the same thing then I'm probably not a very good one. And do you mean thematically, or what kinds of relationships do I write about or how would an academic classify my play or something else entirely? Do you want me to refer to the time period, the political situations, or what the main character is struggling with at the moment? Are you looking for descriptors like kitchen-sink dramas, comedies, dramadies, or something more specific? Are you asking me what I wrote last, or what I'm about to write, and are you saying that all my work has to be about the same thing? And why are you trying to pin me down?!?!
At this point, a mere half-second has gone by in your head, but in my head I've tied my tongue into such knots that I have no hope of answering your question at all without feeling false to myself, and I thoroughly resent you for this feeling. I am at a loss for how to encapsulate my artistic work in a sound bite that will fit between the sip of wine you're taking now and the moment when you realize you have to use the bathroom and wander off, leaving me here, alone, with all the words I never said, and a handful of shattered glass where my wine used to be.
#2. So, how's your writing going? Did you get much done?
What do you mean? Do you mean did I write a lot of words down today? I think that's what you mean. As compared to what? Are we counting in words or pages? Or do you mean do I feel good about my writing today? Which is hard to do now that I've been told I'm not writing enough words down. I was feeling good about two-minutes before you asked me that question, but now I'm not so sure. How much is “much” when you say “did you get much done?” Is it a relative term? Are you comparing me to a novelist? Because the medium is totally different. It's fine. My writing is fine. Everything is fine.
See, this is a trap. If I say my writing is fine, then maybe I'm trying to sound okay when really I'm panicked about it inside, and is that good, or should I be honest and say I'm panicked? But if I'm not panicked, then what does that mean? Have I lost my mojo? Should I be panicked? And what if the writing is not fine, how should I respond, and is it really any of your business? Writing is a very personal business! Why don't you just ask me if I've had sex this week or what my left nipple looks like?! Is nothing sacred anymore? Maybe my writing is not fine, maybe I'm struggling, and maybe my characters are speaking so quietly I CAN'T HEAR THEM RIGHT NOW, but that doesn't mean it won't come back. Sometimes you just have to wait these things out. Sometimes it's about being good to yourself, about not judging, about breathing slowly so you don't hyperventilate. Have a little faith in me for crissakes! Just because I didn't turn out 20 pages last week doesn't mean it's all over! I can't breathe. Is it stuffy in here? I really can't breathe, no really, do you have a paper bag on you?
#3. So what do you do for work?… A playwright? But, I mean, can you actually make a living doing that?
I'm sorry, I thought you were asking me what my career was. I thought you were interested in how I've decided to contribute to the world. But no. You wanted to know where the money comes from. The money the money the money, it always comes back to the money! Why didn't you just say, “How do you get your money?” Maybe I steal it. Yes, I steal it. I pick-pocket people on the subway, and sometimes I knock over a homeless person for their change. Who cares where the money comes from?! Why is that the most important part of me? Obviously I'm not starving, so I'm managing to eat and shower and sleep somewhere at night. Maybe you think being a writer is easy, that I just sit home all day twiddling my thumbs like some dilettante? You do, don't you? You think I lazily lounge on the couch in my pajamas playing video games and eating Cheetos? Your day ends at five or six or seven – my day never ends: It's the middle of the night and I'm wondering if the child under the bed in scene four has a disability and if so, what kind? Is that why he's not talkative? Maybe there's another reason. And then when I'm making lunch the next day, I berate myself for not doing enough applications for arts residencies, colonies, contests, fellowships, writing groups, grants... and by the time I'm finished with lunch, I think I need to stop it with the applications my God I haven't even reached Act 2 yet, all these distractions need to stop! By dinner time I'm lonely from a day of writing and want to see people, and by the time I've finished looking at people's shit on FB I've decided people are the enemy and how will I ever get this play completed unless I shut them out of my life and find some solitude?
And you want to know where the money comes from? From God. The money comes from God. I don't know where it comes from! But writing is what I love. And what tortures me. And how I try to make a difference in the world. Are you really more interested in what kind of soul sucking office temp job I might currently have? Because if you are, I don't want to talk to you anymore.
#4. Dude, writing is hard. And you're, like, really sacrificing your own comfort because you want to say something important. I totally get that. And I respect it, man, I respect it. Can I buy you a drink?
This is never a wrong question. On the contrary, this is a splendid response to anything I might ever say. (I threw it in as a “trick” question, so to speak, just to see if you're paying attention. I'm thrilled to see that you are. That means a lot. Really.) I'll have a beer, something malty. Or a whiskey, Makers Mark if they have it. Thank you. Thank you not just for buying me a drink, but for understanding my pain.
PS - If, however, you are a literary manager, an artistic director, an agent, or any kind of producer, please ignore everything I just said. I'd be happy to answer your questions about anything at all.
Deen will be be performing excerpts of DRAW THE CIRCLE at the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance Conference in DC (July 20th) and at Unification 2012 in NYC (August 12th). The show in its entirety will have its Chicago premiere as a partnership between Silk Road Rising and About Face Theatre in December.
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.