Tag Archives: survival

Season of the Bitch

You got to crank up every pitch
You got to crank up every pitch
This is the Season of the Bitch

Ah, writing. At last count, I’ve been doing it seriously for…(pause for math)…36 years. (Not counting the short story I spontaneously wrote, unbiddened, at age six, and then demanded my mother type up. Which she did. That’s a mom.) In general, the first four or five years of writing turned out crap. Then, for the next ten years, it turned out more ambitious, somewhat better-crafted crap.

After about 15 years, I started writing for the stage, found my form, and put my apprenticeship behind me. I’d achieved what I’d more or less decided to do when I was, uh…six. I became a writer. Which essentially meant I’d found my way out of one maze and entered another.

In the process, I’ve experienced some incredible highs, weathered some dark stretches (when I seriously wondered if it was worth it) and some bleak streaks (when I had no ideas or just didn’t feel like picking up a pen), and received more rejections–I prefer the word “bounces”–than I can count. Seriously.

I used to decorate the walls of my office–whatever space I’d set aside for writing–with rejection slips. It seemed like a defiant gestures–something a Writer would do. After awhile, the decor lost its charm, took on the stench of self-pity, and felt slightly masochistic. Now, production posters and cast photos cover the office walls. And, you know, there are a bunch of them. They’re a lot easier on the eyes and psyche because they say: you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again. That comes in handy when one enters the Season of the Bitch.

Which is to say, over the last month or so, I’ve submitted a shitload (to use the writer’s technical term) of work after a long stretch of basically non-stop writing (you have to grab the work when it’s hot and coming in, else it’ll spurn you, and you’ll lose it), and the little letters and e-mails have started trickling in. One picks up an envelope armed with a letter opener (I prefer a antique Mexican switchblade, compadres) and a bag full of rationalizations: these are tough times; everybody’s having a hard time getting produced; there are a ton of good playwrights out there and a limited number of slots; getting bounced means you’re in the game; and, as the posters attest, getting produced is not impossible.

These help to push away the darker thoughts, which still have a way of sneaking in when you’re tired, bummed, or overwhelmed. The game’s rigged. Your work’s too weird (non-commercial, non-linear, dark, unconventionally structured, and about 100 other choices you’ve deliberately made). You don’t live in New York City. You’re not paying off a more or less useless MFA in theatre. And the killer: You suck and you’re kidding yourself.

If that last one kicks in, it can paralyze you as quick as a curare dart to the neck. Then you have to: distract yourself (in my case, do something creative just for pleasure, but there are plenty of other options available…some of which won’t kill you); get back to work with a big, neon FUCK YOU sign flashing over your head; or crank up some fast, furious rock’n’roll and crawl back into the submission machine. If you can do all three without getting lost, the process can actually feel somewhat manageable.

Lightning eventually strikes, but, the longer between flashes, the more tempted one is to wise up and get the hell out of the rain. You can, or course. Sometimes you must to dry out. But, if you want to see the process through, inevitably you’re going to have to bundle up and head back into the storm.

As for the don’ts….

Don’t take it out on whoever responds to you. They’re doing a job, may have limited clout, and are prey to circumstances you can only guess at. If they’re taking time to read scripts, they love theatre and new work just as much as you do, and they may well be another writer dreading the mail/e-mail when they get home. And, brass tacks, they may not like the kind of plays you write…which means you don’t want to be produced there anyway.

Don’t take it out on other playwrights, sucessful or otherwise. They have worn the very same impossible shoes hurting your feet, and, though they might be having a hot year, they might be lacing up the torture shoes 12 months later.

Don’t take it out on family or friends. They really can’t understand how you feel, and, whatever they say, they probably think they’re being helpful. That’s called love, and should be accepted as such. Also don’t avoid them because you think you’ll bum them out. Honestly, they’re just as eager to tell you all the stuff that’s pissing them off; it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Don’t take it out on the job you have to work to pay the bills. They haven’t a clue, could care less, and you’re lucky to have a gig these days.

Society. Yeah, you can take it out on them. But it won’t do a damned bit of good, they don’t care what you say or do, and it can lead you back into “lost cause” wilderness.

And…don’t blame yourself. At the moment, you have enough problems. Just try to write as well as you can, and keep going.

So. For writers beginning and otherwise (and, I suppose, any artist–and anyone looking for a job). Do you ever get used to those oh-so-polite kicks to the nuts? Nope. Are they avoidable? Not if you want to play. Should you take it personally? No. Will you? A little, even if you won’t own up to it.

This is the Season of the Bitch.


A bad time for arts…

…a good time for entertainment.

This morning’s New York Times carried a story about a resurgence in moviegoing. With the economy so lackluster, people apparently are looking for the cheapest route to forget their problems for awhile, and a couple hours in a moviehouse eases the mind without inflicting extensive financial pain. (It didn’t break it down to this level, but my guess is there’s also an increase in matinee/discount hour attendance.)

So that’s good for folks who work in the movies (if their production companies can actually get financing with credit in the dumper), nor is it surprising: people have long turned to the movies when the world goes to hell. The Great Depression may not have been the best time for the arts, but it did give us screwball comedies, some of which are now classics. Nor is it surprising that attendance is up for lighter fare and down for serious films (or at least films tackling serious subjects). When everything seems to megasuck, it’s hard to crank yourself up for a couple hours of war, famine, plague, and over varieties of suffering. People don’t want to be reminded that they are mortal in a world rife with injustice; they want to fall in love, laugh, and, if they’re Americans, see things blow up.

But it’s further grim news for those of us who can’t forget war, famine, etc., and hence reflect it in our art. As the author of two very tough-minded plays about war (and another two in progress), it’s sobering to see them bounced on nearly a weekly basis, despite good reviews and strong production histories (re: “Waiting on Sean Flynn” and “Liberation”; “Next of Kin” is still in the rewrite stage and not yet on the market, and “Depth of Field” is mired down in a structural writer’s block, though I trust George Montgomery, my war photographer protagonist and a character I’m intensely fond of, will one day prowl the stage).

Even I’m feeling it. Though I don’t imagine I’ll ever be accused of writing fluff–it’s just not in my nature nor, honestly, my range of talents…it’s dark (but busy) in here, folks–I feel the fabulist side of my work calling. I’ve kind of bounced back and forth between gritty stuff about war and politics, and more surreal, dreamlike work, and of late, the dreamlike stuff has been drawing me. It still tends to be kind of heavy, but there’s usually a good deal of humor (attempted at least), and the goal is less about exploring the depths of human cruelty and more about playing with the underpinnings of psychology, the relationship between perception and the doings of the unconscious psyche, and the strangeness that grows from their intersection. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” I’ve also been playing with taking “genres”–such as the noir detective world–and twisting it around with magical realism. Less Michael Herr, more Phillip K. Dick.

It’s not going to make a difference for awhile, I suspect. When your subscriber base is shrinking, grants are evaporating, arts budgets are being cut, ticket sales are down, and corporate and private donations are shrinking, theatres tend toward the familiar over the new, relying on plays with established track records or, if they’re doing new plays, choosing playwrights with established names. (I guess I’m an established name at this point, but I have a very short reach.) It’s not just Portland; I’m hearing this everywhere. Right now it’s more important to keep the patient breathing than happy.

But, as recessions don’t last forever, neither do periods of contraction in the arts. Inevitably, people tire of hap-hap-happy formulas or variations on favorite themes and want something that’ll challenge them. And, as we enter–for good or ill–a time of dynamic change, I think audiences will eventually need work that helps them understand a chaotic world rather than merely assures them that the world will continue for another day. For me personally, that probably means a fallow period for productions (or productions on smaller scales), but the relationship between writing and production is cyclical as well. When you’re not getting produced, you write to make up for the bum news; so I’m actually experiencing a creative upsurge, where I have so much stuff written in notebooks that I haven’t even had time to type it up, much less revise, workshop, and submit it. Those kinds of periods don’t last forever, either: you have ride them while you can. In short, I’m doing a lot of writing. And having fun with it because I’m relatively free to write whatever the hell I want. Freedom sometimes really is a word for nothing left to lose.

To my artist friends, especially those who don’t live or die by performance, I say: work, damn it. Survive, have fun, and lose yourself in the creative process; so that when things turn up, you’ll have fresh new plays and photographs and paintings and poems and songs to introduce to a world starved for the new. And for my performer friends, I guess this is a time to work on your chops, cherish and reconnect with your friends, and find solace in small projects. It’s not fun. It’s scary. And it’s going to be hard to keep the faith. But like the good times, the bad ones don’t last forever.

They just feel like they do.