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 or find him on Facebook.

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 or find him on Facebook.