Getting unstuck with STUCK

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What do you do when you feel stuck as a writer?

Below you’ll see some writing tricks that have worked for me when I can’t seem to make any headway or even get started.

What has worked for you?

Writing tricks for getting unstuck:

  1. Write with a timer. Just 5 minutes of committed writing time might get you in the flow enough that you want to continue beyond the timer going off. Just getting started can help you build momentum.
  2. Write knowing that you have the option to throw it all away and never show your writing to anyone else (you don’t even need to show it to yourself again!). Take the pressure off and just let those words flow without expectation.
  3. Pull inspiration from another author. Grab a book from your bookshelf and choose a piece of random text as a jumping off point. See David Menconi’s suggestion to jumpstart your writing here.
  4. Find an accountability partner or writing group. In these stay-at-home days, you might still reach out to friends to talk thru your story ideas and to gather the encouragement you need. Writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. 🙂
  5. ‘Go visual, aural, or physical’ — clip photos from a magazine, listen to music, or move your body for inspiration.
  6. Take a break. Come back to it tomorrow or another time when you feel your well has filled again. It’s ok to dream about your work away from the page. It’s ok to take a break and percolate for a bit.
  7. Construct boundaries or a list of required ingredients for yourself. Occasionally creating some restrictions around our work can help to free us up.
  8. Write for another medium or genre. If you are a playwright, try writing for audio or for video. If you write dramas, try your hand at comedy. An occasional switch up can be inspiring!
  9. Give yourself a deadline. I love a deadline as motivation, even if I’m the one setting it for myself!

Do any of those resonate with you?

Those tricks in practice:

This month, I’m feeling really grateful that the STUCK MONOLOGUES from PlayMakers Repertory Company allowed me to call on almost all of the items from the list above in order to get my contribution completed on time. 🙂

In particular, I want to point out #7 (list of required ingredients) and #8 (writing for another medium) from the list above.

As you’ll see below, the playwrights for the STUCK MONOLOGUE project were asked to adhere to a recipe of three ingredients when writing our short monologues. Those items gave my writing focus while still feeling expansive enough that I could follow my own voice. I was able to write more quickly than usual, and wow, during this time of corona-distraction and molasses-creativity, it was a balm to finish something.

And, as you’ll see/hear, each playwright developed a unique piece based on the same ingredients. So thrilling.

As a playwright who writes for the stage and for audio, it was also a fun challenge to write a short piece for pre-recorded video and to consider ways to use that visual element to tell the story. Check out LEVERAGING MR. BUMBLE and see if I succeeded.

Speaking of…

Have you watched the STUCK MONOLOGUES from PlayMakers Repertory? 

Hop on over and enjoy all of them. If you have a moment, please let the staff at PlayMakers know if you are eager for more of this type of project – I know they’d love to have that feedback and support.

Released over the course of July, these short monologues were written by local playwrights including: Jacqueline E. Lawton, Julia Gibson, Lynden Harris, Tamara Kissane (me!), Alejandro Rodriguez, Madeline Sunshine, Mark Perry, Michael Perlman, Khalil LeSaldo, and Mike Wiley.

Here’s the description from the PlayMakers site: 

As early quarantine days had us feeling “stuck,” we called upon some of our favorite local playwrights to turn that feeling into art. Then members of your favorite acting company, past and present, worked their magic in bringing those monologues to life.

We gave our playwright friends a “recipe” to turn our common moment of being stuck into something creative:

  • It must have at least one local reference
  • It must contain at least one joke.
  • It must fit well under the title of “stuck.”

An image from my piece performed by Gwendolyn Schwinke

Go directly to LEVERAGING MR. BUMBLE on YouTube here.

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A couple more things….

#1: I was on the radio on July 24 to have a quick chat with Dr. B on WHUP (a local radio channel). We talked about Piedmont Laureate-ing, audio dramas, writing, and the pandemic. (Listen here starting at the 25 min mark.)

#2: The Durham Arts Council is delighted to be partnering with Alamance Arts, Orange County Arts Commission and Person County Arts Council to offer the new Artist Support Grant.  The grant program is funded by the N.C. Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural & Cultural Resources, with additional funding from the Durham Arts Council and the partner counties.  The Artist Support Grant was created to provide direct support to individual artists during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative will fund professional and artistic development for emerging and established artists to enhance their skills and abilities to create work or to improve their business operations and capacity to bring their work to new audiences.

Eligible artist applicants: have lived in Durham, Orange, Person or Alamance Counties (NC) for at least one year, are at least 18 and are not enrolled in a degree program in their art form.  Projects in performing, visual, literary, traditional and media arts are eligible. Grants will range from $500-$1,500.

Information sessions are currently scheduled for 6PM on August 6 (co-hosted with Alamance Arts) and August 11 on Zoom. Email Margaret DeMott to register.

Guidelines and scheduled information sessions can be found here.

Applications are due on September 14.  Questions?  Email Margaret DeMott.

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Thanks and happy writing,

Tamara

Playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton: upcoming event + podcast episodes about new play development

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A quick blog post to encourage you to attend an upcoming event and to listen to two wonderful podcast episodes with Triangle-based playwright, Jacqueline E. Lawton!

Jacqueline E. Lawton is a playwright, dramaturg, producer, and advocate for Access, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the American Theatre. Her produced plays include:  Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; The Hampton Years; Intelligence; Mad Breed; and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Currently, she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a dramaturg for PlayMakers Repertory Company. She is also Dramatist Guild’s Regional Representative for North Carolina.

Jacqueline E. Lawton, photo by Jason Hornick

UPCOMING EVENT:

Jacqueline’s play, XIX, was commissioned by the Women’s Theatre Festival in celebration and reckoning with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment (the 100th anniversary is this year!). XIX is a socio-political drama about the role of Black women in the women’s suffrage movement.

Please make a note on your calendar to attend the virtual reading of excerpts of XIX on July 11 at 7:30pm as part of the Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here for more information. Post-show discussion will be facilitated by dramaturg Jules Odendahl-James, with panelists JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell (XIX director); Jacqueline E. Lawton (XIX playwright), youth voting advocate Isabel Lewis; Dr. Gloria Thomas, the director of UNC’s Women’s Center, and the President of the League of Women Voters of Wake County, Dianna Wynn.

LISTEN UP:

And, listen to two podcast episodes featuring Jacqueline E. Lawton on Artist Soapbox. You’ll hear Jacqueline and guests JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell and Jules Odendahl-James talk in detail about the new play development process. So much helpful and powerful information in these episodes! I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

126: XIX: New play development with Jacqueline E. Lawton, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, Jules Odendahl-James

The wonderful guest trio of Jacqueline, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell and Jules Odendahl-James dig into playwriting topics such as translating a historical event into a contemporary piece, deciding what story to tell and who should be the center of the story, the development process and the roles of the director, dramaturg and playwright and much more.

127: ARDEO: Narrative medicine and new play development with Jacqueline E. Lawton and Jules Odendahl-James

ARDEO is a one act play inspired by research and personal narratives of health practitioners and patients at UNC-CH’s North Carolina’s Jaycee Burn Center. This play explores how patients and doctors communicate with each other; how health practitioners communicate with the public; and how theatre artists can be of service to patients, doctors and the larger public.

Jacqueline and Jules touch on the field of narrative medicine, the particular development process of ARDEO, the value of partnering the dramatic arts and science, and opportunities to create those collaborations. Speaking of collaborations, Jules and Jacqueline discuss their work together as theatre-makers and the awesomeness of dramaturgs and dramaturgy especially for new plays in development.

Be well, friends,

Tamara

 

 

 

Graphing Conversations

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How do people talk to each other? How do we write convincing, real-sounding conversations that convey relationships and character?

Today, I’m excited to share a fabulous writing exercise from Carrie Knowles (PL ’14) that focuses on DIALOGUE.

I love Carrie’s exercise because it is a visual and aural exercise for oral discourse. Rather than writing down a conversation word for word, Carrie encourages us to graph as we listen, then discern the patterns, and ask what those patterns mean for the relationships between the people in conversation. Very cool.

The exercise below is a small excerpt from Carrie’s new writing workbook: A Self-guided Workbook and Gentle Tour on How to Write Stories From Start to Finish. 

If you’d like to complete the remainder of the exercise below and make progress in your writing journey (at your own pace!), then grab yourself a copy of the workbook and enjoy the ride.

*As we stay home for safety during COVID-19, you can adapt this exercise by listening to conversations happening online or in radio and podcast form. You might also listen to dialogue from different styles of movies and TV shows. If you live with family members (as I do), then you’ll have lots of conversations to graph right in your own home!

Excerpt from LESSON SIXTEEN of A Self-guided Workbook and Gentle Tour on How to Write Stories From Start to Finish

 HOW DIALOGUE CAN HELP YOU TELL YOUR STORY 

Dialogue is one of the great tools of writing fiction. So, let’s learn something about how it works and why understanding how people talk to each other can help us develop the characters as well as the plot. 

Here’s your first lesson in writing dialogue. Words matter, but how the conversation is constructed matters more. A well-constructed dialogue can define relationships between characters and explain the underlying story. In short, great dialogue shows more than it tells.

Here’s an exercise that can help you sort out this concept. 

Go to a coffee shop or some other busy place where people are talking. Listen to how people are talking to each other rather than what they are saying. Pay attention to the rhythm of the conversation. 

As you listen, draw lines. Set it up like a dialogue. When the first person speaks, write A, then start making a line. Try to mimic the speed of each person talking as you move your pencil across the page.  The faster someone talks, the faster you draw your line. 

When the next person speaks, go down a space and write B then start a second line. Go back and forth between the two speakers. Your page should look something like this: 

A______________________

B_____________________________________________________________________________

A______________________

B_____________________________

Use a question mark (?) to indicate someone has asked a question and an exclamation point (!) when someone has shouted or raised his or her voice or gave an emphatic response. 

Do this for a whole page. Look at the lines; are some longer, others shorter? Who has most of the short lines? Who has most of the longer lines? Is there a pattern? 

What can you know about this interaction just from the length of the lines? Is one person dominating the conversation? Who initiated the conversation? Did someone dodge a question and change the direction of the dialogue? Do you notice any pauses in the conversation? What might those pauses indicate? Are the two people taking polite turns talking? Are they talking quietly to each other? Is one person raising their voice? Are they laughing? Are the sentences they are using long or short?

What does all this mean?

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BIO

Carrie Knowles has published dozens of short stories and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, and four novels: Lillian’s Garden (Roundfire Books, 2013), Ashoan’s Rug (Roundfire Books, 2013), A Garden Wall in Provence (Owl Canyon Press, 2017), The Inevitable Past (Owl Canyon Press, 2020), a collection of short fiction, Black Tie Optional: 17 Stories (Owl Canyon Press, 2019) and a writing workbook, A Self-Guided Workbook and Gentle Tour on Learning How to Write Stories from Start-to-Finish (Owl Canyon Press, 2020). Her non-fiction memoir about her family’s struggles with their mother’s Alzheimer’s, The Last Childhood: A Family Story of Alzheimer’s, initially published by Three Rivers Press, was recently revised, updated and reissued through Amazon.

Carrie writes a regular column for Psychology Today: “Shifting Forward: A Wanderer’s Musings”.

Carrie was named the Piedmont Laureate for Short Fiction in 2014. Her short stories have won more than 25 awards, including the Village Advocate Fiction Contest, the Blumenthal Writers & Readers Series, the North Carolina Writer’s Network Fiction Syndication and Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Competition. She has been named a finalist in Glimmer Train competitions six times and was also a finalist in the Doris Betts Fiction Contest and received an honorable mention in the National Literary Awards.

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FINAL NOTE

Near the end of March, I reached out to a handful of experts to request a quick tip or exercise for people who are writing at home.

It’s taken me awhile to circle back around to sharing what I received, but I’m happy to say that a good writing tip rarely goes out of style.

Thus far, I’ve shared a writing-prompt exercise from David Menconi (PL ’19), and a 5 step revision process from Ian Finley (PL ’12).

 

ICYMI: Today is Juneteenth and Jaki Shelton Green’s birthday

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My previous PL post featured our first Piedmont Laureate and current NC Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green.

Today is Jaki Shelton Green’s birthday and Juneteenth.

Happy Birthday to our incredible Poet Laureate! Happy Juneteenth!

I invite you to celebrate both today.

Read, listen, and be inspired to write. (Links to three great articles below.) Support Jaki’s work by purchasing a copy of her newly released record The River Speaks of Thirst.

READ AND LISTEN:

A Poet’s Commemoration of Juneteenth: How North Carolina poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green is marking the day

N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green Mourns George Floyd with “Oh My Brother”

N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green’s “The River Speaks of Thirst” Reclaims Stolen Breath

BIO:

Jaki Shelton Green is the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate. When he appointed her in 2018, Governor Cooper stated that “Jaki Shelton Green brings a deep appreciation of our state’s diverse communities to her role as an ambassador of North Carolina literature. Jaki’s appointment is a wonderful new chapter in North Carolina’s rich literary history.”

Her collegiate and professional experiences include currently teaching Documentary Poetry at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, Visiting Professor for the Carlow University MFA Program, Lenoir-Rhyne University Writer-in-Residence, Duke University Teaching for Equity Fellow, 2019 Barnard College Africana Studies Department Lewis-Ezekoye Distinguished Lecturer, 2019 UNC Chapel Hill Sonja Stone Memorial Lecturer, Taller Portobelo Artist Colony Portobelo Panama, University of Panama, Department of Cultural Resources for Brazil, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Distinguished Visiting Writer, North Carolina Turkish Association, Alhambra Cultural Center in Marrakech Morocco, NC Symphony, NC African America Cultural Heritage Commission.

She is the owner of SistaWRITE and co-partner with Dream Yourself Awake and Vertikal Creative Ventures providing writing retreats and travel excursions for women writers in Sedona Arizona, Ocracoke North Carolina, Agadir Morocco, and Tullamore Ireland.

Read our first two Piedmont Laureates: Jaki Shelton Green and Zelda Lockhart

In my writing practice, when words fail me, as they are doing now, I try writing prompts for a kickstart, I turn to revising old work, and I dive into the intentional and vigorous consumption of fellow writers’ words.

We write as we read. We read as we write. Yes?

We write to read. We read to write. Yes?

Are you reading?

What are you reading?

What are you intentionally choosing to read besides the scroll of social media?

(I ask these questions to myself daily. What are your answers?)

As readers of a blog on the Piedmont Laureate page, I know you are inclined to support Piedmont writers and that you have an interest in Laureates. 

It is my pleasure to include below the published works of two esteemed writers and our first Piedmont Laureates, Jaki Shelton Green and Zelda Lockhart. I encourage you to read and amplify their work.

I am reading:

Breath of the Song: New and Selected Poems
by Jaki Shelton Green
 
The Soul of the Full-Length Manuscript: Turning Life’s Wounds into the Gift of Literary Fiction, Memoir, or Poetry
by Zelda Lockhart
 
All the Songs We Sing: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective
edited by Lenard D. Moore [introduced by Jaki Shelton Green]
 

 

Jaki Shelton Green

2009 Piedmont Laureate, Poetry

2018-Present North Carolina’s Poet Laureate

The following was taken directly from Jaki Shelton Green’s website:

“Jaki Shelton Green is the author of eight collections of poetry: Dead on Arrival, Dead on Arrival and New Poems, Masks, Conjure Blues, singing a tree into dance, breath of the song, published by Carolina Wren Press and Blair Publishers. Her other publications; Feeding the Light, I Want to Undie You are published by Jacar Press. Her poetry has been published in over eighty national and international anthologies and featured in magazines such as Essence and Ms. Magazine.”

Follow this link to purchase books: https://jakisheltongreen.com/books/

Zelda Lockhart

2010 Piedmont Laureate, Fiction

The following was taken directly from Zelda Lockhart’s website:

“Her books include Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief ( by Doris Payne with Zelda Lockhart), and The Soul of the Full-Length Manuscript which takes readers on the emotional, psychological and spiritual journey of utilizing personal stories to transform their lives while completing a work of fiction, memoir or poetry. Lockhart is author of novels Fifth Born, a Barnes & Noble Discovery selection and a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award finalist, Cold Running Creek a Black Caucus of the American Library Association Honor Fiction Awardee, and Fifth Born II: The Hundredth Turtle, 2011 Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her fiction, poetry, and essays appear in several anthologies as well as in periodicals like Chautauqua, Obsidian II, and USAToday.com.

Lockhart is Director at Her Story Garden Studios: Inspiring Black Women to Self-Define, Heal, and Liberate Through the Literary Arts. Lockhart is also publisher at LaVenson Press helping women and girls to take ownership of their stories through publication.”

She welcomes visits to her websites:

A five step cycle of revision

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I’ve found that during stretches of lengthy melancholia, I am less likely to generate new material, and more likely to turn to familiar old drafts that need to be revisited, reconstructed, or regenerated. Perhaps if you are feeling at loose ends in these difficult times, then revision might be the phase of writing that feels right for you.

However, if you feel ready to jump in and create new work, but are feeling a little stuck, then see the previous tip from David Menconi (PL ’19). And circle back to this post when you’re done!

Near the end of March, I reached out to a handful of experts to request a quick tip or exercise for people who are writing at home. 

It’s taken me awhile to circle back around to sharing what I received, but I’m happy to say that a good writing tip rarely goes out of style. 

I’m excited to be sharing this wonderful exercise from Ian Finley (PL ’12) by way of Carrie Knowles (PL ’14). This tip focuses on REVISION!

Ian Finley adapted the cycle below from our fellow Laureate Carrie Knowles, who introduced him to the idea of the Five Step Revision. 

Note: It is strongly recommended that you don’t revise until you have a complete draft, but once you do, hammering away at revisions might be just the project for you while staying safe at home.

How to revise? Sometimes changes are obvious. Sometimes you’re sure a script can be improved, but don’t have a way into the Revision Chute. Try these five steps, and see where you end up.

FIVE STEP REVISION PROCESS:


1. Add What’s Missing.  Now that you’ve finished the script, you know where it was going all along, and what you were trying to say.  Now you can add all those elements that support that destination and theme that you may not have been aware of when you started writing.  Payoffs can be set up, and set ups paid off, the arc of characters enriched and extended, because you know who they are now.


2. Take Away What You Don’t Need.
  This is the biggest step, by far.  Again, now that you’ve arrived at the end, you know what your story is trying to say, so you can remove those sections that were necessary explorations in the first draft, but don’t move the story forward.  Be merciless.  It’s not “obliterating your darlings,” it’s giving your darlings a haircut, taking away the unecessary bits of them so we can see them better.  It’s a lot of cutting.  I usually aim to trim 25% between my rough draft and the next few drafts.  That’s one of every 4 lines, but your writing will be hugely better for it.


3. Ensure Conflict on Every Page.  In a play, conflict is what keeps the audience watching.  As soon as the conflict relaxes, you have about two minutes before the audience’s attention wanders, perhaps for good.  That’s why it’s called a “happy ending;” when the characters are happy, the play is over.  But conflict is not just bad stuff happening.  In the Book of Job, bad stuff cascades down on this poor schlub, but there are zero conflict in the piece, until the end when he confronts God, and God pushes back.  That’s what conflict is: two forces in opposition to each other; the pursuit of a want, running into obstacles, and overcoming them with tactics.  Conflict is active, in the same way that agreement or even suffering is merely passive.


4. Ensure Character Voice is Unique & Consistent.  Now is the time to read through the whole script, out loud, only reading one character’s lines.  This will give you a sense of the quality and consistency of that character’s voice.  Do it for each character, one at a time, making fixes as you go, and you’ll bring them all into focus.  Ideally, you should be able to cover the character names and still know who is speaking, and this has nothing to do with funny accents or the like.  It’s because each character is different, and therefore expresses themself differently.  Character voice is the most powerful tool you have for revealing character to the audience, because it is shown to them every time a character speaks.  Their status, background, interests, and relationships are all reflected in the way they speak, and that is the most elegant way of sharing that with the audience.


5. Edit!  Spellcheck, grammar, mechanics, all of that!  And correct Standard Manuscript Format!  All of that is as important in playwriting as anywhere else.  But notice that it is the LAST step of the process, for the very simple reason that after polishing the grammar of a given line, you might be unwilling to cut it (see Step 2) when you realize it doesn’t help the story. Edit last.


Except… last isn’t really last, because these five steps are actually a cycle.  Once you’ve finished, go back and run them all through again.  And again. My experience is that time is a key element in creating my best work. If you have time now to devote to revision, then your writing will be well served.

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Ian Finley holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School at New York University.  In 2012, he was named the Piedmont Laureate in the field of Playwriting and Screenwriting by the arts councils of central North Carolina. He is the author of many plays, you’ll see them listed in the show notes including: The Nature of the Nautilus (winner of the Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Award), And There Was War in Heaven (finalist for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference), Native, The Greeks, 1960, Jude the Obscure, Suspense, A Perfect Negroni, 11:50, the Our Histories cycle of site-specific plays for Burning Coal and the First Night site-specific plays for Seed Art Share.

More Ian Finley:

Enjoy Ian’s lectures on YouTube.

Enjoy his most recent podcast conversation on Artist Soapbox: 105: Art and education in times of crisis with Ian Finley, playwright and educator

Additional suggestion: Dig into the PL blog archives to read the generous and useful posts written by Piedmont Laureates in previous years. You won’t be disappointed.