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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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.