Four Notes

“What is it about three G’s and an E flat – three eighth notes and a half note – that are so pregnant and so meaningful that a whole symphonic movement can be born of them?”

– Leonard Bernstein, 1954

I’m guessing such a question about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one that, when explored by any composer of music, has the potential to yield a wealth of insight into the craft. I say “I’m guessing” because I’m not a musician or a composer. I can’t even sing. I have a guitar, but it cringes when I come near it. I am pretty handy with a tambourine, but that’s just one note. Jingle, jingle, bang, bang. Rhythm I can do … sort of. Start adding notes and I’m way out of my element. I’m a writer. I work in words. But, I learned something about notes this weekend: apparently, they aren’t very different from words – at least when using them to create art.

I was in my shop working on a Christmas gift for my wife and listening to a local public radio station, when I heard a wonderful analysis of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by Leonard Bernstein. It came from a 1954 television broadcast in which Mr. Bernstein looks at the composer’s own sketch book, examining eight years of notes, revisions, and rewrites. He considers Beethoven’s early drafts and why they might have been rejected. Accompanied by The Symphony of the Air (formally The NBC Symphony Orchestra), the great American composer and conductor demonstrates some of those drafts so the viewers can actually hear the evolution of one of the world’s musical masterpieces.

Beside being thoroughly entertained by the historical aspect of the program (not to mention the great music), I was deeply impressed (and surprised) by its relevance to me as a writer. Having about as much musical talent as one might find on the head of a pin, I’d never realized the similarities between writing a play or novel and composing a symphony. As Mr. Bernstein notes in the program, “… many of us assume that – when we hear the symphony today it sounds so simple and right – that it must have spilled out of Beethoven in one steady gush.” This was always my impression. I am so amazed by the ability of anyone who creates music to do so, that it rarely occurs to me that it requires work. It’s more like magic. (Surely, to me, it might as well be.)

Mr. Bernstein’s explanation of Beethoven’s process – the way the master looked critically at his own work, discovering the themes buried in it, drawing them out, cutting and trimming away all the extraneous notes until all that was left was what was needed, what was right, exactly right, nothing more, nothing less – could have as effectively been a lesson on writing words rather than notes. In fact, from moments into the program, that is how I took it.

Hearing the music and the discussion of the writing process in musical terms allowed me to see my craft from yet another perspective. Things that I knew were there but had a very difficult time seeing became crystal clear as I heard them. The notes, the music, gave form where words alone fell short. Over the past year and a half, I’ve been learning to look at my work as a playwright through some new lenses – among them, poetry and dance. Now, I have music to complete that circle.

I can’t begin to explain all the lessons about writing that I’ve gleaned from Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of Beethoven’s process in composing his Fifth Symphony. In fact, I’m still learning. As the music continued resonating days later, I found myself digging up a YouTube video of the original television broadcast. Ten minutes into it, I went back and replayed portions. The audio was good, but the video adds another dimension as Mr. Bernstein used it handily to illustrate many of his points. As a tour of the mind of one master guided by another, the piece is a treasure trove for any writer of notes or words. Of course, simply mentioning Bernstein and Beethoven is probably enough to attract the attention of any music composer. But writers of words, take note: this is a lesson on our craft too!

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

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Bigger Tiller

The rumble alternately rises
and ebbs like the half purr
half growl of a great cat.
Rubber treads dig in and pull the machine relentlessly
forward against the rotation of the tines that tear
into the soil like great steel claws.
Clay, mulch, compost, ash, and lime churn, pulse, and bubble
into dark fountains under the beast. It lurches
ahead. I grip the handle
with clenched fists and thrust
my body. This way. That way. Muscles
taut against the
force of the wild machine as it makes
it’s own way. Forcibly I try to hold it to it’s path,
but in the end I can do little more than
follow as it chews
row after row of earth and
spits out finely sifted loam.
Another pass, and then another until
the tines have dug deep –
deeper than roots can fathom
unlocking the soil’s rich treasure
releasing it to be drawn upon, soaked in, gobbled up, and savored.

I’m a gardener. Once or twice a year, I till my thirteen by twenty-two foot garden terrace where I plant most of my vegetables. I do this to mix in the nutritious organic material I’ve added to the soil, along with some other amendments to make it tasty and healthy for the little plants. So, how deep do I go when I’m tilling?

That’s a good question. How deep is deep enough? I know I need to till far enough down so that the roots of the plants will be completely within the prepared soil. Otherwise, energy that could contribute to producing lots of yummy tomatoes, beans, peppers, cucumbers, and okra will be consumed by roots having to punch though hard-packed clay in search of nutrients. But tilling is hard work, even with my tough machine. And it takes up a lot of time. So, on the one hand, I don’t want to dig any deeper than I have to. But on the other hand, there is benefit to drawing some of that deeply concealed soil to the surface and unlocking its cache of good-for-plants stuff. A seasoned gardener knows how deep to till. He knows how much room the roots need and he knows what benefit they can get from the soil.

Likewise, a writer must know how deep to till. The soil in the writer’s garden is Backstory. It’s the history of the universe in which his story unfolds. Every story is really just one facet of a three-dimensional matrix of stories that comprise the universe it occupies. When I sit down to write a play, I try to keep in mind that there is a lot more to the story than what will happen on stage. Each character has a life that extends in every direction far beyond the play. The environments, communities, people, and events that are part of that life are structurally critical to that character. This is what we call Backstory, and it plays a big roll in writing a plausible story. Like real people, characters react (or should react) to the present based largely on what they’ve experienced in the past and what they’ve learned (or think they’ve learned) from it. The more familiar the writer is with his characters’ backstories, the more capable he is of writing a story that is accurate within the context of its universe, the more plausible it will be, and the richer it will be. Backstory has to be detailed enough to nourish the story at hand (in this case, the play) with all the past events, experiences, and influences the characters need to draw from when reacting to the events in the story. So, how detailed is that? How deep should I till?

In my endeavor to advance my writing to the next level, I’ve decided to go all out and take my tiller far deeper than I’ve ever taken it before. What I’ve found is some pretty rich soil! By going back – way back – into my characters’ life histories, I’ve found that there are a lot of easily neglected choices that can add tons of texture to the story. For the two main characters in the play I’m currently working on (Last Love), I’ve gone back generations and described their parents and grandparents. That may seem excessive, but think about the influence your parents and grandparents – their values, attitudes, and beliefs, their level of education and economic status, and other attributes – had on the person you are (and the choices you make).

I’m not just including their biographies (each written in third person narrative from the point of view of the respective character) in their profiles. I’m writing their physical, mental, and emotional profiles, personality descriptions, philosophy of life, and other attributes. And I’m not just writing them in narrative from my perspective as the playwright, but also in first person – in each character’s own voice! It’s a daunting task, but now that I’m well into it, I’ve discovered some really cool things.

First, I learned some things about my characters that will add tremendous texture and complexity to the story. However, because those things are organic elements of the characters and are driving their choices, they’re also intuitive. That means I don’t have to manipulate the story as much to make it work. This makes things seem more simple, more obvious. The long and short is that the story looks more like real life which requires a lot less explanation than something strange and otherworldly. In other words, my primary and secondary audiences (the director, actors, and crew being my primary audience; their audience being my secondary audience) will more clearly see themselves in my characters, which will make them more recognizable, requiring less introduction.

Furthermore, some of the things I learned about my characters suggested they would never find themselves in the story I’m writing. Think about it: has anyone ever asked you one of those “What would you don if …” questions and you had no clue how to answer because you would never be in that place? Yeah, well, my characters (as I’d created them) wouldn’t have been in the place I’d put them. So, I had to change them. (I’m the playwright; I can do that!) Most of the changes were subtle, although collectively quite significant. Some changes were pretty drastic. One character received an eleven-year age reduction … and a son! Yeah, that’s a big change.

Something else I discovered is that the greater detail in which I define my characters and their backstories, the fewer choices I have to make in the play. By making most of my choices in creating my characters, I’m limiting the number of directions the actual story can take. The characters are going to make their choices based on who they are and what they want, which I’m defining in great depth in their profiles. The story is practically writing itself! Of course, there is still much to be done to transform the story into a theatrically effective play, but when I get to that point, I can focus more on making it provocative, beautiful, compelling, and entertaining – and less on just trying to make it work.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

New Tools

This is my first new blog entry since October, 2013. So, where have I been? What have I been up to? Let me start by reminding my readers (both of you) that I began this blog way back in July, 2013 with New Shoes in which I announced that I would be producing a show. That show, Playing in the Dark: Eight Tragic Tales of Hope, Redemption, and Enlightenment, featured three of my short plays (Monster, Family Tree, and Waiting for Leonard) as well as the work of fellow playwrights Kate Guyton, Daniel Guyton, Daniel Carter Brown, and James Walsh. It was produced by Out of Box Theatre and I was the production coordinator.

To understate it, producing the show was a daunting excursion. I will probably never do it again. Not because it’s hard, but because it’s not what I want to do. I didn’t produce the show because I want to be a producer; I produced the show because I want to be a better playwright. It was a field trip. A lab. A playwriting course on what a producer does with a script. And, with that in mind, it was an amazingly productive experience. Otherwise, it was an overwhelming draw on my already limited supply of time. And in that, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

For several years, I had invested loads of time into writing plays, rewriting plays, workshopping plays, researching plays, rewriting plays, studying playwriting, marketing plays, rewriting plays, workshopping plays, and rewriting plays. In terms of hours, it was nearly a full-time job – and (ask any playwright) that job doesn’t pay. But I have a well-paying full-time job, so that’s okay – except that two full-time jobs doesn’t leave much time for things like keeping up with your house and cars, spending time with your spouse, eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and other things that sometimes don’t seem as essential as reworking a scene to bury some narrative in the subtext or tweaking a line to get it just right or writing a killer synopsis or getting out another dozen submissions. (You get the picture.) By the spring of 2014, I was overwhelmed and way behind – on life!

So, Playing in the Dark opened in May of last year and I was working on another play that was set to premier later in August. Playing in the Dark was a big success, but shortly before that run began, I made the decision to pull the August show and hang up my playwriting shoes alongside my producer shoes at the end of May, 2014. And that’s where I’ve been.

Sort of.

When I began my hiatus, I had no set time in mind at which to end it. Later, I decided one year would be sufficient to catch up on some overdue maintenance and improvements on the house and cars (a bathroom remodel, a new exhaust for my pickup, and so on), get my garden in, and spend enough quality time with my wife so that she’d be ready for me to find something else to do. Earlier this month, I started writing again – officially. But unofficially, my mind was on writing the whole time and some really cool things have come of that.

In a nutshell, I have taken the opportunity to look at my writing process from the outside in. Without the burden of self-imposed deadlines, I have taken a leisurely stroll in these old writing shoes and discovered some very interesting things. Some of them I’ll go into great detail about in later blog entries (watch for them), but for now I’ll just say that I have completely reworked my process. Now, as I tighten my laces and jump back into writing, it’s with renewed excitement and some cool new tools. I’ll be throttling the time I spend at it a little to (hopefully) avoid falling so far behind on the rest of my life, but I’m already pleased with the productivity I’ve experienced the past few weeks. I hope to diligently keep up with this blog (expect probably about an entry a month), as I share some of those tools.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

Writers Write

It’s a cliché, but here’s the thing about clichés: they’re generally true.

A few years ago, I was a novice playwright turning out decent plays and getting them produced all over Atlanta and beyond, while some folks who’d been doing it longer (and, in many cases, better) weren’t getting the productions I was getting. It was suggested by several of my peers and a few of my mentors that I create a workshop to help other novice playwrights get their plays produced. I eventually obliged; last year I started giving a two-part, six-hour workshop for Onion Man Productions called The Playwright’s Journey: First Steps. In it, I start by examining what motivates a writer to write, work through the entire process of preparing a play for production and submitting it for potential production opportunities, and finally end with a discussion of contracts. It’s pretty much soup to nuts. The only think I don’t cover is how to actually write the play. (You can’t do that with one workshop.)

As I work through the process, one thing becomes very clear (well, it should anyway): there’s a lot of writing involved. Duh! Right? But really, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. Of course, there’s the play – draft after draft of it. Then there’s the other play. And the other one. And so on. Because, you see, a person who has written a play is not a playwright. A playwright doesn’t write a play – a playwright writes plays.

See what I did there?

You can write a great play – Tony award, Pulitzer prize material – but until you get it into the hands of the right artistic director at the right time (which, honestly, might never happen), it’s not getting produced. So, you write the next play. I’d started a half dozen before my first one was even finished.

But the writing doesn’t end with the play. You have to write a synopsis. In other words, you take this ninety-minute masterpiece and boil it down a paragraph or two. And that’s just the one you write for the artistic director who’s trying to decide whether to even read your script. Then, if it’s selected, you boil it down even more – to just a few lines – and make sure you take out the ending so you don’t spoil the play because that’s what’s used to market it to an audience. But before you get that far, you write a cover letter to go with your submission. And a bio. (Now, just in case writing the bio sounds cut and dry, know that some folks want to see a one page bio while others want it in just a few words – and there’s everything in between.) And, hopefully, you’ll find yourself writing a contract at some point, which is, of course, more writing.

If you find that you’re having some success, you’ll want to set up a website so people can find you on line, see how much success you’re having, and maybe send some more success your way. Which means more writing – some of it in HTML. Oh, and then there’s the obligatory blog. (Can’t forget about that).

Now I’m venturing into the world of production (see “New Shoes”) with a project for Out Of Box Theatre Company called Playing in the Dark: Eight Tragic Tales of Hope, Redemption, and Enlightenment set to go up in May, 2014. But, I’m still writing.

Over the past few months I wrote two new ten-minute plays that will premier in December in holiday shows at Lionheart Theatre and Onstage Atlanta, started drafting another that will be part of Onion Man Productions’ 2014 Summer Harvest show, A Different World, and I’m approaching completion on another for the Playing in the Dark program. I’m also working with fellow playwright and good friend James Beck to create a new one-year intensive workshop program in which we are the guinea pigs. Under one another’s scrutiny and encouragement, he is completely overhauling his play The Secret of the Cat as I am my play Last Love. They will go up with the help of Lionheart Theatre Company in August, 2014, and (hopefully) will see a second production shortly afterward. In the mean time, I’m in the later stages of another full-length play, I have the initial drafts of two brand new full-lengths in the works, and I’m researching two others. (Okay, breathe.)

Hmm … am I forgetting anything? Oh, yeah. I hope to participate as a playwright in the 24-Hour plays sponsored by Working Title Playwrights and hosted by OnStage Atlanta over the weekend of November 9/10. Then there’s the dozen or so submissions over the past several weeks (cover letters, etc). And there’s my blog. (Can’t forget about that).

Seem like a lot? It is, but that’s what writers do. We write. Every chance we get. Some may not stay as busy at it as I do; I probably have more opportunity than most. But we all write whenever we can. We have to. For writers, writing and breathing are similarly essential to existence. For some, it’s a pastime, a hobby, a source of pleasure. But for the writer, there’s this strange thing – some call it a muse – that gets in your head, fills it with ideas, and urges, drives, even torments you until you write. I guess I wouldn’t die if I didn’t write, but I definitely wouldn’t want to test the idea.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

Important Stuff

I found out this morning through a barrage of e-mails – one from the producer and several from friends of mine who actually saw the announcement before I did (thanks for all the kind words, folks!): my ten-minute play Common Ground has been selected by Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake, MN (near Minneapolis) for a November 7 production. It will be part of an arts festival called Food for Thought: Hunger in the Suburbs, created by local nonprofits to draw popular attention to the issue.

I’ve been writing all my life. Over the years, I’ve engaged in nearly every discipline of the craft I can think of. I’ve been a technical writer, creating equipment operating and service manuals hundreds of pages long. (If you think that stuff is boring to read, try writing it.) I’ve written for instruction, training, and education in a variety of environments including school, church, business, and military. I’ve been called upon to write policy for business and military organizations. I’ve written advertising and marketing copy from one-liners in small print ads to billboards to multi-page 9×12 glossy brochures and catalogs. I’ve written open letters that have been published in newspapers and more direct letters to government officials, some of which have incited responses ranging from published replies in open debate to the initiation of Unites States Senatorial investigations of such agencies as the Internal Revenue Service and the United States military. On the more creative side, I’ve written fiction for children and adults, creative nonfiction, radio drama, and quite a few stage plays. I’ve even dabbled in poetry and screenwriting.

You might say I really enjoy writing, but you’d only be partly right. What I really enjoy is creating things that get inside people’s heads and affect what they know or how they think. But fear not; I’m not into mind control. Reading this blog will not turn you into a minion programmed to execute my bidding without question (at least I don’t think it will – although a few minions would be nice to have, if anyone’s interested). What I am into is stirring people, giving them something to think about, or showing them things from a little different perspective than they may be accustomed to.

Whether it’s helping someone to better understand a task like repairing a machine, or motivating someone to right a wrong, or just helping someone shop, I most enjoy writing with purpose. You know: Important Stuff. That can be quite a challenge when I’m writing a play or other creative piece. My primary intent then is simply to entertain – to provide a momentary respite from the serious business of living and make people laugh or gasp or cry or laugh (laughing is my favorite). When I’m writing a play, the desire is always there to write about the Important Stuff – but there can be great folly when attempting to mix Important Stuff with frivolity. It’s not that it shouldn’t be done – but there’s a right way and a very, very wrong way to do it.

I’ve seen, read, and heard a number of plays in which it’s clear that the playwright is desperately trying to say something important. It may be a very good point – it may be something everyone should know and heed – but writing a play around Important Stuff just doesn’t work. The play suffers (and, consequently, so does the audience). When I write, I try to keep in mind that almost nobody goes out to see a play because they want to know what the playwright thinks is important (and the few  that do are a little weird). No, people go to the theatre for the same reason they go to a movie or a ball game or a tractor pull – or just stay home and watch television: to be entertained. So I write things that I hope will entertain. When I see an opportunity to get some Important Stuff in there, I take it, but only when I can do it without interfering with the entertaining part.

All plays, movies, television shows, and books have one thing in common: they’re all based on true stories. Like it or not, none of us has the capacity to come up with something completely new. We can twist, crunch, flatten, combine, or simplify, but what we start out with is what we’ve seen, heard, lived, or otherwise know. And there are always lessons in life. So, it’s not surprising to find a lesson in a story, whether it unfolds on the stage, the screen, or the page. Writing a story and getting Important Stuff in it works if you do it right, but draping a story over Important Stuff doesn’t make good entertainment any more than drawing a big red “S” on the cover of an equipment operation and service manual would make it a comic book.

The difference is subtle. It might help to think of it like this: rather than trying to write Important Stuff and make it fun, write fun stuff, and look for ways to make it important. Trust me – it works best that way. When I wrote Common Ground for Onion Man Productions’ 2010 Summer Harvest festival of short plays, my intent was to entertain my audience. I just found a way to use the story to bring attention to some Important Stuff that many (most?) people know very little about – the suburban and rural homeless. The Lakeshore Players production in November will be the third for Common Ground.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

Thick Skin

If you are your own worst critic, you may be hanging out with the wrong people.

There’s this television show called American Idol. You’ve probably heard of it, but let me explain it to you, just in case you’ve been on Mars for the last ten years or so. It’s like a talent show where everybody sings. And there’s this team of judges – not like Judge Judy, but just as opinionated. What makes this show so entertaining is that these judges travel the country listening to people sing – people who’ve been told all their lives by their moms that they sing well – but most of them really stink at it! They make complete fools of themselves on national television. Now, I might be a bit of a sadist, but I think it’s really funny when some young man begins to sob or some young lady goes into a profanity-laced tirade when told he or she just can’t sing. Hello! Mama’s been-a lyin’ to ya! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

As a writer, I’m always looking for people to read my work and tell me what they think. And I really hate it when some well-meaning friend or family member wastes my time by telling me they didn’t find anything wrong. Seriously? You’re telling me I just created a perfect work of art? I don’t even think that’s possible.

See, I’m an artist. And you might say true artists take criticism well, but you’d only be partly right. True artists don’t just take criticism well, we seek it. Tell me you didn’t like it. Tell me it stinks. Tell me it’s the worst thing you’ve ever read. Just tell me why, so I can fix it – or at least make it better. I don’t need you to tell me it’s perfect. I have a mom to do that.

I’ve been in many writers groups where people sit around a table and read one another’s work aloud and then take turns commenting on what they’ve heard. (If you’re a writer, then you know the drill.) Some of these groups sound like mutual admiration societies. All they do is talk about how wonderful the work is. And if you say something critical, you get anything from glares to an invitation to leave. That’s an invitation I gladly accept. I don’t have time to waste with people who think art is supposed to be easy. And I definitely don’t have time for people who can’t handle criticism. Go back to your mom! (Sheesh!)

Now, if something about a piece I’ve written is truly good, then sure, I want to know. Not so I can bask your flattery (I don’t have time for that, either), but rather so I know enough to leave it alone. If it ain’t broke, I don’t need to fix it. But what I really want to know is what’s wrong with it. Go ahead. I can take it. I’m an artist. I have thick skin.

Of course, there are those among us (and you know whom you are) who strive to make themselves feel superior by tearing down the work of others. If they don’t see something in the work that’s bad enough to sustain heavy criticism, they make something up. But those people are always easy to read and their input is generally ignored (which is a bit of a shame because they occasionally say something really smart … occasionally). But for the most part, a true artist wants to hear the criticism that others can offer.

When I’m writing, I know exactly what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to say, where I’m trying to take my audience – and I rarely fail to accomplish that in my head. But I never know whether I’ve done it on the page – where it matters – until I’ve received the feedback of other people who haven’t spent hour upon hour for weeks or months completely immersed in research, notes, and multiple drafts. Only someone who is seeing the piece by itself, without all the work that’s gone into it, (and usually for the first time) can tell if it stands on its own. Typically, it falls on its face – or at least stumbles around a bit – and needs more work.

I like writing in solitude. One reason, of course, is that there are fewer distractions. But another is that I like to frequently read the piece aloud, in character, to hear how things are working as I go. That makes me feel a silly enough when I’m alone. When I’m not, well you can imagine the looks I get. But I must come out of hiding from time to time and share my work-in-progress with others, soliciting their criticism. If I don’t, the work will suffer. I’m not so vain as to believe that I can write a play or a story and present it complete and at its best without listening to that criticism. No one can.

I’ll say it again. No one can.

I’m pretty hard on my own work, but I can never be as hard on myself as I need to be. I’m too attached to it. I don’t see it objectively. I can’t. I need people who are willing to look at my work from the outside and tell me candidly what they really think – no matter how bad it might be. I can’t be my own worst critic because I need critics who are much harder than I can possibly be on my own work.

A true artist seeks criticism. The rest make fools of themselves.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.