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.

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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.