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 ┬áthat 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.

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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.