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 andour 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 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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
[Speaking of writers, here’s a 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.]
It’s taken me nearly a month 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.
If you are feeling the itch to write, AND you are also feeling blocked, then the tip below from David Menconi might be just the rocket booster you need.
This is an extraordinarily silly exercise, but it has actually worked for me as a sort of mental reboot.
If you’re stuck on a piece of writing, especially how to begin something, put it aside, go to the bookshelf, randomly select a book, randomly point to a sentence & type it.
I did this just now & the book is Lewis Shiner’s very fine 1993 novel “Glimpses.” From page 177:“Does this have anything to do with that Beach Boys tape you played me last night?”
Put aside the book, treat that as the first sentence of something & just keep typing/writing for a while. Don’t worry about how good/bad it is or even think too much about it. I have found that it’s a good idea to stop before writing myself into a corner.
After that, go back to your main task & you might find it possible to burp something onto the page that you can at least start working with.
019 Piedmont Laureate David Menconi covered music for the (Raleigh) News & Observer for 28 years. His book “Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk” will be published this fall by the University of North Carolina Press.
Imagine you have just 2 days to write a 10 minute play using the following ingredients:
What would you write?
Might you find freedom and focus by having those restrictions?
What would your bake-off ingredients look like?
[Hint: This would be a great writing exercise for you to take on with a group of friends as a weekend writing sprint just for fun or for distraction. If you are having a tough time generating a list of ingredients, then let me know, and I’ll send you some. See below for links to the origin of the Bake-Off.]
In early April, the Women’s Theatre Festival released the list of required ingredients above, and eighteen NC playwrights stepped up to create their speedily written masterpieces.
This weekend, you can listen to their freshly baked plays!
One Audience Choice play will join four Adjudicator Choices at the Women’s Theatre Festival’s #OccupyTheStage2020 for a reading. I have the honor of working with the playwrights to continue developing their work for that event.
Big thanks to Triangle Bake-Off director Madison McAllister and Johannah Maynard Edwards, Executive Director of the Women’s Theatre Festival for doing the heavy lifting to make this event happen. Congratulations to the playwrights and thanks to the actors and adjudicators for their good work.
Mother’s Day can be tricky. If it’s a tangled web of emotions or expectations for you, then I wish you ease and peace this weekend.
If you are a mother, I raise my giant cup of coffee to you in solidarity and with love.
I am Mama to a preschooler and a middle schooler. On the best of days it’s a challenge to navigate family, work, and creative responsibilities. During the COVID-19 epidemic with school closures, event cancellations, financial concerns, family/social distancing, and emotions running rampant, the challenges are even greater.
When I find caregiving-while-creating to be particularly difficult and isolating, I seek out other people who are facing similar challenges; people I know will understand.
This year, I’ve been especially grateful for the opportunity to interview parent artists from across the country on the Artist Soapbox podcast.
If you’d like to hear the perspectives of all types of theatre artists who are also parenting, then I invite you to listen to these interviews with PAAL Chief Reps:
PAAL is a national community, resource hub, and solutions generator for individuals with caregiver responsibilities and institutions who strive to support them. PAAL aims to elevate the national standard of care for caregivers in the performing arts and media. PAAL has a fund for caregivers that you can donate to or apply for.
The feature article in this series, written by Rachel Spencer Hewitt, the founder of PAAL is titled: Work/Life Balance Is Everyone’s Urgent Business Now. She writes, “As we face the COVID crisis, our field has a chance to restructure itself around human needs. Caregivers can lead the way.”
Here’s an item on my list of THINGS-THAT-BRING-ME-JOY: Talking craft with playwrights, writers, theatre-makers and artists of all mediums.
Does that bring you joy too?
For the last 2.5 years, these artist-conversations have been recorded in person and then released via the Artist Soapbox podcast for everyone who likes to listen.
It’s always been an honor and a delight to spend time with my interview guests, and shake their hands, and see their faces light up when they discuss their work.
As COVID-19 in the US has ramped up significantly over the last seven weeks and all Piedmont Laureate events were cancelled, I shifted to recording my podcast interviews online.
Though we are no longer in the same physical space, I continue to feel honored and delighted to share time with my guests and to hear their voices light up when they talk about their work. Since mid-March, I have worked to bring the voices of writers in our community to your ears as quickly as possible via the podcast.
I hope these conversations might be:
comforting or stimulating
thought-provoking or soothing
inspiring or sheltering
or whatever you need at this moment in time.
Below you’ll see fifteen podcast episodes from March 30-April 28, incase you’ve missed them.
Like the previous list from March 13-27, you’ll see a roster of incredible writers from the Triangle community including: Monét Noelle Marshall, Ian Finley, Chris Vitiello, June Guralnick, Amy Sawyers-Williams, Jack Reitz, Debra Kaufman, Allan Maule, Mark Cornell, and Cheryl Chamblee.
All of these conversations have sustained me in moments when I felt very isolated and worried. I found comfort in the connection I felt after 40 minutes of conversation with another human being about creativity, life, writing, process, and meaning.
After this intense flurry of activity (31 episodes in 7 weeks!), the Artist Soapbox podcast will be on hiatus for a bit so that I can return to my own writing, gain a more comfortable handle on my life/home/parenting responsibilities, and blog more regularly here.
If you are looking for inspiration, writing tips, vulnerability and a backstage pass to the writing process, then I hope you will enjoy listening to the episodes below.
If now is not the best time for you to listen, then they will be here when you are ready. Sending you love.