This year, as with every year, I made a New Year’s resolution to write “more.” Whatever that means.
The best way to do this, of course, is to actually write more. Write every day. It’s that simple, and that complicated. But if you want to be a writer, that’s what you do. Much smarter and more talented people than me have said it.
Getting into that daily practice is easier said than done, even when we’re NOT in the middle of a pandemic. People have jobs, bills, kids, spouses, family. For artists of any type, the need to balance creative pursuits and, well, everything else can feel like walking on a tightrope made of dental floss. How does anyone do it?
For me, the answer was: Enter a monthlong writing challenge.
I signed up for the 28 Plays Later, a contest of sorts run by the UK-based nonprofit The Literal Challenge. And, strangely enough, it worked. I wrote more plays in the month of February than I have from 2018, when I started playwriting, through Jan. 31. The forced habit of writing something new every single day taught me a few lessons. I’m putting them here in case you find them useful.
1. Write every day
Opinions vary on whether you should wait for inspiration to strike or simply sit down each day and grind something, anything, out that you can throw on the page. I’ve tried both techniques in my life and can say with certainty that the former method does not work. If you wait for inspiration or the next great idea, it will never come.
The problem with waiting for inspiration is that you’re not really waiting for an idea; you’re waiting for a good idea, one that will let you form your first draft in exactly the way you want. But — again, smarter people than me have said this — if you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be a painter, you have to paint. If you want to do any sort of creative endeavor, you have to work at it. Every day. Most of your output will be terrible. This leads me to the second, also not original, lesson that hit home for me in February:
2. Accept the lousy first draft
In her book “Bird By Bird,” author Annie Lamott devotes an entire chapter to the perils of perfectionism. She warns, rightly, that the pursuit of perfection stands between you and the “shitty first draft.”
I’ve spent countless hours at my desk, staring either at a blank screen on my laptop or at an empty notebook page, struggling to come up with a story, a paragraph, a sentence that my inner editor won’t reject with a “that sucks” admonition. When you have a deadline every single day, you don’t have time for such nonsense. Tell that inner editor to STFU and get some words on the page. It doesn’t matter if they’re awful. It doesn’t matter if they don’t make sense, if they’re too flowery, if they’re too sparse, too clichéd, too bizarre.
Once the words are on the page, you can do anything with them. You just have to get them from your brain to the page.
Again, this advice has been said before by smarter and more talented writers than me. But a daily deadline, where you have to turn something — anything — in helps bring into focus the importance of creating that lousy first draft. Anything after that is gravy.
3. Know how it ends
One of the rules of 28 Plays Later was that it had to be a full play. You couldn’t turn in a single scene from what you hope might be a larger piece. It had to be a self-contained work. That meant it had to have a beginning, a middle and an end.
I only have a finite amount of time to write each day, so I don’t often think of endings; I just think of how much I can get done in the early morning hours before my kid gets up.
28 Plays Later forced me to look at the whole story. Even if what I wrote was incredibly short — no full-length plays were born in this process — each of the 28 plays had a defined story arc.
One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I will often start with a great idea, carry it through to a solid middle and have no idea how to resolve it. Then the piece goes in a metaphorical drawer and never sees the light of day. This challenged forced me to think of endings. It helps to know where you’re going when you start on a journey. That’s true of plays, stories and any other creative endeavor.
4. Learn different styles
The prompts for the 28 Plays Later challenge were varied and incorporated theatrical styles I knew nothing about.
I’ve never seen or read a play by Bertolt Brecht. But I still had to write a play in the Brechtian tradition (hello, Wikipedia!). Same with Sanskrit theater.
Do I understand what that is? No.
Was I helped by watching performances of Sanskrit plays on YouTube? Also no. (Actually, a little bit.)
But now I have a better idea of the many different styles of theater that are out there, beyond the simple two-characters-in-pursuit-of-a-goal.
The lesson of these prompts can apply to any creative pursuit, and it can be summed up in two words:
5. Accept that some of what you write will be good.
You know how I just said, three subheads ago, that you should accept the lousy first draft? Here’s the flip side:
Be prepared to like some of what you write.
In February, I wrote 28 plays. Six or seven I’m going to treat as mere writing exercises (no one needs to see my hurried rewrite of “A Doll’s House”). A few I’m throwing into the editing pile to see if I can’t flesh them out a little and make them submission-friendly.
The good news is, one play I wrote in February was good enough to get accepted into a short-play festival. More importantly, a few of the plays that I showed to playwright friends received good feedback.
Even most importantly, some of the plays I wrote I actually enjoy reading. I don’t know if they have a future on the stage, or Zoom, or whatever form theater is going to take in our messed-up world. But to have a handful out of 28 plays that you, the writer, like, is a notable achievement.
Now it’s March. I’m going to spend a lot of the month editing, and perhaps writing something new that will take more than a day to complete.
Keep creating. Whatever you’re after, just keep working at it.
Every. Damn. Day.