I had the honor of giving the keynote speech at the 2015 ACT Theatre Young Playwright Program celebration. Here is what I said:
Good evening, playwrights.
Thanks for having me. I am really honored to be included in this celebration. Congratulations on finishing your drafts. You might feel super stoked about what you wrote, or you might feel less stoked, but facing down a blank page and filling it with anything is a huge accomplishment. Give yourselves a round of applause.
So, I have to admit I was a little bit scared to talk about how I write plays. There’s the part where you don’t really know how you do it, like it’s a little bit magical, and you’re worried that if you talk about it you might break the spell. And then there’s the part where it can be so painful to write a play that you have post-traumatic-playwriting-syndrome and you just don't want to go back to that place.
Anyway, for you, I decided to face the pain and look at my own process and my own philosophy of playwriting. And, actually, it was fine. I didn’t die.
So, you can boil down the advice I’m about to give to four major precepts. These might be a little different than what you’ve heard before, but here are Holly Arsenault’s four pillars of writing plays:
1. You don’t have to write what you know.
2. It’s fine to copy other writers
3. Read bad plays.
4. You don’t have to write an important play.
Okay? Great. See ya!
Just kidding. Before I explain what I’m talking about with those four things, I want to spend a minute just talking about a way of being in the world.
I realize that not every single of one of you is going to decide to become a playwright. You are in the part of your life where you are trying stuff out to see what fits best. I hope you can embrace that process and enjoy it for what it is, and not experience too much disappointment or discomfort if something you try doesn’t work out. That is the point of adolescence—it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. I’m not saying you should quit your piano lessons or whatever when it gets hard. If you’re doing something worthwhile, it should be hard. If you’re doing something and it’s not hard and you think that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life, you’re going to have a boring ass life. All I’m saying is if you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, this is useless to me because I’m not going to be a playwright,” just realize that everything you try is getting you a little bit closer to figuring out what you really want to be, and the best thing you can do is try to wring as much learning out of each experience as you possibly can.
So, here’s my advice for how to be in the world that will make you a better playwright or whatever you decide to do: be skeptical of a personalized universe.
We live in the age of digital personalization. When you look at Facebook, Facebook is serving you the content that it thinks you want to see based on what? What you’ve looked at before. What you’ve already commented on. What you googled yesterday. Facebook’s goal is to predict your future behavior based on your past behavior.
Same thing with Google. Google search results are not neutral. You guys do a lot of research in your lives for papers and stuff, so you really need to understand this. If I Google, say “Donald Trump” and my conservative uncle Googles “Donald Trump” we are going to get very different results, because Google knows what we’ve searched for in the past, and it’s going to make predictions about what we want to see. I just learned that there is a term for this, it’s called the “filter bubble”.
This is a change from how we used to get information. If you went to your bookshelf and pulled out your Encyclopedia Brittanica to look something up, the entry didn’t change based on whether you watched CNBC or Fox News the day before.
So, these technologies are not just making information delivery more efficient, they are actually changing the information we get. This is a problem for you, as a writer. It’s a big problem, because the deeper you get inside of your own, curated-for-you universe, the less outside information you’re getting, the less your brain is able to stretch itself around another person’s experience. If you want to be a good writer—or, really, a good person—you have to be able to get outside of yourself and imagine other people’s experiences. As a playwright, this is essential. You have to be able to speak another person’s language. You have to be able to inhabit another person’s point of view. If you can’t do that, you can’t write plays.
Think about how music works now. You can buy a full album, and people do, but you can also just go get the one song that you want. That’s not how it used to be.
Not to be all “In my day…” but in my day, we listened to cassette tapes, and skipping a song was tedious. It was easier to just listen to it. And it turned out that some of the songs that I hated on first listen, songs that really rubbed me the wrong way, once I listened to them over and over and over again because they were sandwiched between two songs that I did want to hear, they started talking to me. They broke some kind of dam in my brain and suddenly they made perfect sense. But if I’d never listened to them, because initially I found them challenging, that never would have happened.
So, as artists and as humans trying to build up our own empathy, we need to be very skeptical of the content that our devices deliver to us. You must pop the filter bubble.
I have a couple of ideas of how to disrupt the filter:
Idea one: You know those memes where it’s like a quote over somebody’s face? You know, it’s like, Clooney and he’s saying something super wise? The next time you see one of those, go find the text or speech that it’s from and read the whole thing. And then, if that person quotes someone else in their thing, go and read that. Keep following the quotes. Let the quotes pull you through a universe of other people’s brains.
Idea two: Ride the bus. So, I don’t know how to drive, which is basically why I’m a good playwright. I take the bus everywhere, so I get to talk to (or listen to) people I would probably not come into contact with in my daily life. Again, you can’t write plays without listening very carefully to the way that people talk. So, anything you can do to put yourself into space with folks who are not on the exact same path as you, the better. But you have to take off your headphones. When you wear your headphones in public places, you are cutting yourself off from the world. You are creating a bubble where the only things you hear are things you already chose to hear. Look, I realize sometimes you are tired and you just want to be in your bubble, that’s fine. But, just realize that you will never ever get good at writing dialogue unless you eavesdrop shamelessly on strangers.
Idea three: Ask for recommendations. It’s the holidays, you might see family you don’t often see. You could sit down with your grandma and say “Grandma, tell me about what it was like when you were a teenager,” and if your grandma remembers and is good at telling stories you might get something interesting. But watch what happens if you ask your grandma what music she liked when she was your age. Watch what happens if you sit and listen to it together. Listen to the whole thing. Put it on your phone and listen to it again. I’m suggesting music because music lights up the memory center in the brain. But ask her what her favorite book is, and read the whole thing. Ask a stranger on the bus. Ask anybody who is outside of your bubble.
Okay? So that’s my first thing. Pop the bubble. Whether you want to be a writer or not. See the bubble. Pop the bubble. The great news is, you actually don’t have to do any of this stuff. All you have to do to disrupt the filter is look up.
Is there a universe inside your phone? Sure. But it’s a universe filled with content that someone else has created and served to you. Do you want to be a content consumer, or do you want to be a content creator?
So. Back to the four pillars of backward playwriting advice.
One: You don’t have to write what you know. Everybody’s heard this one, right? Write what you know. It’s actually fine advice if you take it mean that you are qualified to comment on the world around you, which you are. My problem with it is that I think it sometimes scares people into drawing too small a box around who they are, which leads to a million boring plays about homogenous groups of 20-somethings. As a playwright, I rely on my own experiences, for sure, but I rely more on my empathy and my imagination. For example, I have never written a play that didn’t have at least one character over the age of 60. I am 36. I’ve never been elderly. Does that mean I shouldn’t write elderly characters? Or does it mean I should do the work of stretching my brain around an experience I’ve never had? I think it’s the latter. I don’t want to spend my entire career only writing plays about Canadian-American female playwrights who really like sweatpants. For God’s sake, there’s nothing more boring than plays about playwriting. You don’t have to write what you know. Be brave.
Two: It’s fine to copy other writers. You may have heard that you shouldn’t try to write like anybody else. Yes, you should try to locate your own, distinct voice. But trying to write like other people is a great way to figure out how writing works. And guess what? Nobody is going to notice that you were trying to write like Chekhov because you’re not going to do it that well. Only Chekhov can do Chekhov and only you can do you. But trying to figure out how Chekhov did what he did can be a good way to find your own voice. A good friend of mine is a successful journalist, and he used to actually re-type whole sections of writing by writers he admired, just to see if he could feel what it felt like to write those sentences. You could do that, too, if you’ve got some time in your hands. It’s okay to try to write like other writers. When you write with your pen, your voice will always win, but you may learn some valuable lessons.
Three: Read bad plays. Okay, hopefully you already know that you can’t write plays without reading plays. But when people say that, they are usually talking about good plays. You should read classic plays and try to understand how they work. Yes. Totally. Do that. But I learned how to write plays by reading a lot of plays that didn’t work. I was an intern at Seattle Rep, where one of my jobs was reading play submissions and writing reports about them. The vast majority of these plays failed on some level. Having to describe why and how they failed taught me so much about how plays work.
Now, unless you are a script reader, it’s pretty difficult to get your hands on really bad plays, because they don’t usually get published. So, the best thing to do is to go see a lot of theatre, especially fringe theatre. If you only go see plays at the big houses, like ACT or the Rep, you might see stuff you don’t like, but you’re mostly going to see stuff that works, because in order for a play to get to this stage, it’s usually been worked within an inch of its life. So, you have to go to the little theatres where people are doing stuff that they might have just finished writing yesterday. Go to Annex. Go to WET. Go to The Satori Group. You are going to see some stuff that will be transcendently wonderful. You will also see some stuff that does not yet work. That’s the stuff I want you to pay close attention to. Take notes. After the show, write down everything you can remember about the play. Write down why you think it didn’t work. Write it like you are trying to convince someone else. You can call the theatre and ask if you can have a copy of the play. Don’t tell them why! You can do this without hurting anybody’s feelings, okay? See and read bad plays and make yourself figure out why they don’t work. That’s how I learned.
Four: You don’t have to write an important play. I see writers put themselves on the rack about this all the time. They like their own work, but they don’t believe that it’s doing enough. They want to tackle a big social issue or animate an important piece of history. And, hey, me too. I would love to write an important play. But I don’t think I will ever try.
There is a quote about this that I love, written by one of my favorite writers, Aaron Sorkin. He puts it in the mouth of the U.S. Poet Laureate. She says “You think that I think that an artist’s job is to tell the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for as long as I’ve asked for your attention. If I stumble into truth, I got lucky.”
Let me put it another way. There is a truth inside of you. You are the only person in the history of time who could express this truth. If you die without expressing it, it will die with you. But telling that truth is not your job. Your job is to captivate your audience for as long as you’ve asked for their attention—which, hopefully, is no longer than 90 minutes. You may stumble into truth, but whether or not your work contains importance is none of your business. Trust that there is something valuable in you that can only find expression through you and let the truth take care of itself.
Thank you very much, and congratulations again on your achievement.