Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Writing, pre-writing, and impulsiveness

There’s a difference between the writing feeling and the pre-writing feeling. With the writing feeling, you’re actively writing, and by writing I generally mean transmitting feelings onto the page without thinking about them. (Thinking about them is not part of the writing process; it’s part of the editing process.) With the pre-writing feeling, you’re feeling like you should be writing something, and that you’re about to, but you don’t quite know how to do it.

Unfortunately, I’m in the pre-writing feeling right now.

I’m hoping to make it into the writing feeling either later tonight, or early tomorrow.

During today’s playwriting workshop, I realized that I’m interested in what characters will do despite themselves. What must they do despite knowing that doing so is going to have terrible repercussions for them? I must have known this before, after 40 years in the theatre and all those Shakespeare plays to name just one example (surely Macbeth has an inkling that this isn’t going to go well), but I don’t remember ever before landing on it as its own isolated thought. One of the playwrights (a good writer) brought in pages where the older woman, with her husband offstage, didn’t respond to the young man’s advances; I felt that we were being teased, and that we wanted more. Turned out that the writer originally had the woman turn around and seize the young man, acting upon her impulse, but then sanded that moment down. This led me to realize how interested I am in characters doing the wrong thing while knowing so in the moment. As we all probably are.

In general, I think impulsiveness is good in playwriting. In the hands of a good writer, anyway. Talent is always a necessity. David Mamet writes in one of his mistakenly confident how-to books, this one on acting, that all an actor has to do is be brave. Be brave, you actors, be brave! Which makes me remember 25 years ago when someone truly terrible auditioned for me and thrust his foot up on a chair at the end of his audition like he was Roald Amundsen planting a flag into the South Pole. He was brave — terrible, but brave. If you have talent, you should be brave. If you don’t have talent, but at least have the self-knowledge to know that you don’t have talent, maybe you’re better off lying low, working on craft, and learning a few things before you boldly plant a flag.

On my way to the workshop, I was stopped at a light when it came to me in a flash what a play I set aside three years is about at its core. No, it’s not about lingering resentment. It’s about regret. The lead now regrets his lost youth and the chances he didn’t take, when he wasn’t impulsive or brave and when he should have been. With that character, it isn’t about what he should do despite himself, because in the present-day scenes he is fully committed to doing whatever he needs to do to get what he wants; this play is about the exact opposite: That he should have done things, in the past, despite himself — and then he wouldn’t have these regrets.

One Response to “Writing, pre-writing, and impulsiveness”

  1. Dan Says:

    Truly a wonderful moment when you suddenly realize what-the-hell-it-is you’re writing.

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