I’m overwhelmed. It’s a good kind of overwhelmed; I’m overwhelmed by an abundance of very helpful information. Nonetheless, it has me a bit … well … overwhelmed.
I spent eight years in the United States Navy operating and maintaining the power plants on nuclear submarines. That was some pretty heavy responsibility. A nuclear reactor isn’t a bomb and, contrary to popular belief, it won’t blow up with a city-leveling mushroom cloud if you break it. However, if something is done dreadfully wrong, the ensuing damage that could result has the potential to ruin the day (and by day, I mean lives) of anyone in the vicinity. Beside that, the particular ships I served on carried a classified number of actual nuclear bombs that could potentially blow up. That would be worst case. Best case … well, there really isn’t a best case when you’re talking about breaking a nuclear reactor. Just some less-worst-cases.
But that’s another topic altogether.
So, I’m working on this play for next year’s Onion Man Productions Summer Harvest festival, Another World, and I’m having to do a lot of research because the subject matter is one that I know little about – and knowing little is worse than knowing nothing. When I know nothing, and I know I know nothing, then I know I need to learn everything if I want to get it right. But when I know a little, I don’t necessarily know what I know and what I don’t know, so I don’t know what I have to learn. And it usually turns out that what I think I do know I really don’t know as well as I think I do. So I have to learn it all anyway to get it right, but I don’t know I have to learn it all until I learn that I don’t know.
(I went back and checked that, and it’s perfectly clear to me, so if you aren’t getting it, you’re not reading it right. Try slowing down and reading it out loud. If that doesn’t work, try rewriting it until it’s clear to you. Then we’ll be on the same page.)
The topic of concern here is autism – specifically (as it turns out) Asperger’s Syndrome in young adults (and, beyond that, the entire autism spectrum in general). As is my habit when I want to write about something I don’t know, I found someone – an expert – to consult with. (See my earlier post: Real Stuff.) I met with her a couple of weeks ago and she was extremely helpful. A professional in the field, she also has a daughter, just a few years younger than my main character, who has Aperger’s. She carried some specific questions of mine to her daughter, and also sent me an instructional video interview they’d made together. So, beside the professional expert consultation, I received experiential advice as well.
After mulling over the preponderance of notes I’d taken, I wrote the first draft of the first scene and had it read at a Working Title Playwrights Monday Night Critique Session. Aside from giving me some clear input on where the script is still weak, the critical feedback I received suggested that I’d effectively rendered my character and her dilemma. This was good. I was on my way to writing a pretty decent play. I would have been happy enough with that.
The next day, I got an e-mail from my consultant. In it was a link to another video, this one produced by a couple of young men, roughly the same age as my character, who are both “Aspie’s.” They’ve learned how to largely overcome their Asperger’s and are reaching out to others through a website and a series of videos they’re producing. Because they’ve learned to understand Asperger’s, they’re able to break it down and put it back together in a way that helps others understand. As I sat and watched this video, then another, it occurred to me that I was witnessing the unveiling of some truly revolutionary information – and a lot of it! I could see that it’s likely to turn the mental health community completely on its side with regard to the how Asperger’s and autism (and perhaps a host of other mental health issues) are approached and treated. I began to realize that, by using this information, I could possibly write a play that might really make a difference for somebody – a potentially life-changing difference.
Or, I might really screw somebody up.
There’s a reason why people say information is power. It’s a lot like energy. Think of the guys who invented the nuclear bomb. They were exploring a source of energy with the potential to change the lives of future generations for the better – or destroy entire cultures and kingdoms. In the right hands, it was a life saver – in the wrong hands it was a killer. Imagine the responsibility. And what they were really dealing with was not a chunk of uranium, but the information regarding how it could be enriched, harnessed, and employed. Okay, so what I’m handling here is not a bomb, but it could blow up in someone’s lap if I present it wrong and they assume I’ve done it right.
So now, I have all this information available and I’m trying to figure out how to best incorporate it into my process. How do I organize and interpret it? How will the director and cast interpret it, and how will the audience receive it? What should actually show up in the script and how, and what should remain as unspoken but relevant backstory. How much is my character aware of, and how much simply affects everything she thinks, says, and does without her understanding why? How much do I reveal to my audience and how do I do that? All this is piled onto the more fundamental questions. What does my character want? What’s her conflict? Who or what is/are the antagonist(s)? What’s the story? And how do I get it all into twelve minutes?
Yeah, I’m overwhelmed. I’m going to take my time with this one and make sure I get it right.