If you’re a writer, or if you aspire to be a writer, or if you’ve just spent much time hanging out with writers, you’ve probably heard it over and over and over … Write what you know! To some, it’s a mantra; to others it’s a cliché. To me, it’s completely backwards.
The first play I had produced was a ten-minute play called Saving Starla. I wrote it for a project called 9×9 ’08 headed up by my friend James Beck. (This project eventually became a precursor to Onion Man Productions, with which I am still closely associated.) During the development process, the script was read at a Working Title Playwrights Monday Night Critique Session. After the reading, those in attendance offered their critical feedback during which a remark was made that me led to one of the most important choices I’ve ever made as a writer.
Saving Starla is about a young woman named Starla who has decided to take her own life. She’s making the final preparations when she’s interrupted by a neighbor, a young man named Eddy. He tries to save her by talking her out of suicide while trying very hard not to reveal how he knows what she’s up to – he’s been watching her through her bathroom window with his telescope. When I sat down to write the script, I had no idea what sort of things Eddy might have been observing (I mean, about her preparing for suicide – not, you know, the other bathroom stuff), so I consulted with a friend and associate of my parents who is a forensic psychologist and has investigated the scene of many a suicide. She described for me the typical behavior of real young women in Starla’s situation and that is exactly what I put in the script – real stuff.
What came out in that critique session was that, at least in the opinion of some of my colleagues, real stuff doesn’t belong in a script unless it actually seems real. You see, some of the elements of Starla’s behavior were unexpected by many members of the audience. Some of them expressed that I should change the script to make it more believable, even if that meant making it less accurate – less real. Some of these people were experienced playwrights whose work had been produced all over the country, and I hadn’t finished my first play.
Hmm … what to do, what to do? Should I follow the advice of my mentors, or follow my instincts? Being the rebel march-to-my-own-drum kind of artist that I am, I went with my instincts – and it was okay. In fact, it was more than okay. The play was a success and has seen two more productions since it’s premiere – one in New York City, and the other in Los Angeles! The lesson I learned from that experience was that real stuff does belong in a play even if it’s not believable. In fact, sometimes it’s important to put real stuff in a play because it’s not believable.
A few years after Starla, I wrote Common Ground, a ten-minute play about the suburban homeless. When most people think of the homeless, they think of the urban homeless – the scruffy, rumpled man curled up under a newspaper beside the front steps of an inner-city business or municipal building, or the bag lady with unmatching shoes sifting through a trash can at a bus station. Many people aren’t even aware of the suburban homeless camped out in the woods behind a strip mall or adjacent to a subdivision full of McMansions, or looking for food in an elementary school dumpster in the middle of the night. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that there are homeless people everywhere, including our own back yards.
Well, it was pointed out to me by my peers and mentors that such things weren’t believable and therefore wouldn’t work in a play. The audience just won’t buy it. So, once again I went with my instincts – this time without hesitation. I had learned. I was confident. And, once again, it worked. Common Ground has received a second production and a couple of public readings. As a result, I have been approached by several people who thanked me for drawing their attention to the plight of the suburban homeless whom they, in most cases, were previously unaware of.
Writing Common Ground was actually easy for me because I’ve worked with the suburban homeless and, for a short time, was one of them. It’s a world I’m intimately familiar with. I was writing what I know. But that’s usually not the case when I sit down to write.
Over the past several years, I have ventured into many worlds where I was a complete stranger and written plays about them. This required some work on my part – I had to learn the real stuff about those worlds so I could put it in my plays. So, know what you write has become one of my personal mantras.
The process of knowing what I write usually begins with online research. As I get deeper into the subject, I refer to books written by experts in the field, but I don’t stop there. Frequently, my research leads me to tracking down and making personal contact with experts and consulting with them much as I did with the forensic psychologist who helped me with Starla. In this endeavor, I have talked or exchanged emails with historians, language experts, a world-renowned physical therapist and other medical professionals, law enforcement officers, psychologists and social workers, war veterans, and sometimes ordinary people whose familiarity with the world I’m writing about simply comes from living there. Many times I’ve had to search half way across the country for these people – often by sending out cold e-mails to complete strangers. (“Greetings! You don’t know me, but I’m a crazy playwright from Atlanta and I’d like to ask you about some real stuff …”)
The most difficult time I’ve had finding an expert on a subject I was writing about was when I needed to consult with someone about Muskogee language and culture in the eighteenth century. Native Americans are very private about sharing such things (no wonder considering how they’re frequently portrayed in non-Native media and art). It took me over three years to find someone who was willing to talk to me. I had one telephone session with him nearly a year ago, and I’m still rewriting the script, trying to fix all the things I got completely wrong! But, the play won’t be finished unless everything in it is real stuff.
I’ve even traveled to locations where my plays are set. Sometimes it was the primary purpose for the trip while other times I’ve added side trips. On these excursions I’ve taken notes that included physical descriptions, information gleaned from people I met or historical markers, details like sounds I heard and even smells! It’s all part of knowing what I write.
Write what you know? Yeah, like that would take me more than about eight minutes. No, writing what I know simply won’t do. I don’t know enough to make it a good story. Oh, there are things I think I know – beliefs, assumptions, perceptions – but that’s not good enough. That’s not real stuff. I want the real stuff in my plays, and that takes a lot of work. But it’s worth it.