Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > 2016 > November
David Eshelman

Local Theatre

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Nov 22, 2016

Although many do not recognize it, local theatre is the cornerstone of the dramatic arts. (By local theatre, I mean what people watch in their own towns.) While metropolitan centers like New York City exert influence, what really counts is the theatre that people see. A theatrical production is often unavailable either in print, film, or other media: it is experienced only by those who gather to see it; and, since most individuals stay close to home, close to home matters. While famous plays have impact, the effect is diffuse when compared to print-centered writing or to film. The effect of non-local theatre works only along the lines of a “trickle-down” influence, rather than the direct impact of other forms: people read a story, but read about a theatrical production.


Given the importance of local theatre, one would think that such performance would be thriving — unfortunately, it is not. This is especially true for local playwriting. Because local theatres have no obligation to present new, local work, they typically turn to renditions of familiar plays that audiences have seen before. While productions of such plays may be comfortable for audiences and for the theatre makers involved, they create minimal opportunities for local dramatists. Though most regions of the country — even far-out, rural places — have some local theatre, they do not often have local dramatic writing. Such a situation hurts local writers and theatre as a whole by inhibiting regional diversity in a form that, of necessity, must be regional.


For this reason, playwriting instructors must not only be writers, but also theatre artists. Specifically, they must act as producers, arranging shows and making them occur. It is not enough to ask students to stuff their plays into envelopes, send them to faraway theatres, and hope for the best: instead, the instructor must ensure local performance opportunities. Print publication is unlikely for beginning dramatists. Because of the pre-eminence of live production, playwrights have far fewer opportunities for print publication than do poets and other writers. Production at distant theatres is similarly unlikely. Most theatres that produce new work already have relationships with playwrights-in-residence and are unlikely to assist beginning authors who live far away. These theatres tend to prefer local writers because proximity makes for an easier working relationship. Instructors can collaborate with existing local theatre companies; but, most often, the instructor will have to run his or her own “production company” — whether it’s something as simple as a series of public readings or as innovative as a podcast/videocast theatre.


Plays must be performed — there is no other medium for them — and, like it or not, the playwriting instructor must be on the front lines of performance.


How do you incorporate performance/production in the playwriting classroom?



[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on July 26, 2012.]] 

William Bradley

The Agony of Defeatism

Posted by William Bradley Expert Nov 16, 2016

Part of leading a discussion in a creative writing workshop involves encouraging students to give rigorous feedback and criticism to their classmates, while also fostering an atmosphere of respect and friendship.  Hank Devereaux Jr.—the narrator of Richard Russo’s academic satire Straight Man—observed that, in the creative writing classroom, “tough, rigorous criticism is predicated on good, not ill, will.” As teachers, it’s part of our job to create an environment where student writers feel comfortable receiving—and giving—detailed feedback and constructive criticism.  The workshop, after all, isn’t going to work if the only thing the student author hears is “great job” or “I really liked the words you used to convey your ideas.”


Creating an environment of friendly and well-intentioned critique is difficult in any creative writing classroom, but it’s particularly difficult in a creative nonfiction classroom.  As writers, we’re frequently defensive when it comes to our work, but as creative nonfiction writers, we sometimes wind up feeling defensive about our experiences and ideas as well.  Once, as a student in a workshop, I had to listen as a classmate explained that she didn’t like the piece I had written because the “narrator” was so whiney and self-absorbed.  And while I like to think that I have thick skin … come on.  That hurt.


I try to be particularly conscious of the student author’s feelings and protectiveness of her work even as I ask my students to talk specifically about what isn’t working in a piece.  Still, even with my attempts at sensitivity, some students are stressed out and even hurt by the entire workshop experience.  Who can blame them? They’ve just revealed themselves—exposed their realest, innermost selves—without the safety net of a fictional narrator or poetic speaker, and now they’re getting criticized for their efforts.  That can be disheartening, even infuriating.


A couple weeks ago, my book—this manuscript I’ve been working on, in various forms, for over five years now—was rejected by a publisher.  Again.  As most working writers know, rejection is just part of the process.  You read the nicely-phrased note, sigh to yourself, then get back on your laptop and find the next contest or university press to send the thing to.  You nod to yourself, silently wish the editors who rejected you good luck with their future endeavors, and then get back to work.


At least, that’s how I think it’s supposed to happen.  The truth is, that’s not how it works for me.  Instead, I give out this little gasp.  Then I pace around the room a little bit.  Then I announce—either to my wife or, if she’s not home, one of the cats—“I don’t know why I continue to operate under the delusion that I’m a writer.”  My wife, for her part, knows to let me say this out loud, to get it out of my system.  And the cats seem to know the same thing—they seldom interrupt my pity parties.


Keep in mind, I’m a fairly successful writer (“For the type of loser who doesn’t even have a book,” Mopey Me adds with a frown).  I’ve published over two dozen essays, reviews, and interviews in some of the best magazines and journals in my field.  I say this not to brag, but to point out that I have no reason to feel like a loser when something I write—from the shortest essay to the book manuscript itself—is not accepted for publication.  But I do.


Inevitably, I get over it.  I take a couple of days, but then return to the manuscript in order to decide, “Was it them, or is it me?”  Sometimes, I make changes.  Sometimes—like this most recent time—I conclude, “You know, I think this is ready as it is.”  And I send the thing back out again.  Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not.  The point is, I essay.


But the larger point is that I understand personally the frustration and disappointment when a piece of writing is received less enthusiastically than its author might like.  My students’ sadness (or anger) at a workshop discussion may not be exactly the same as my own response to a rejection, but it’s darn close, I think.  That’s important to keep in mind—too often I get frustrated by my students’ frustration.  “I’m trying to help you!” I think to myself.  But it’s useful to remember that they’ve poured as much as themselves into their assignments as I have into my book.


Lately, I’ve taken to telling my students what I’m working on, and when the work gets rejected—or accepted.  I want them to understand that the occasional disappointment is inevitably part of this process, but that if they persevere, they might know the joy that comes with realizing they have succeeded in reaching—and moving—their audience.


Any other tips on how to deal with student frustrations in the writing workshop?  For that matter, any advice for me on how to deal with my own bouts of self-loathing that inevitably accompany rejection?


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 8/28/12]]

Michael Kardos

Thanksgiving Exercise

Posted by Michael Kardos Expert Nov 10, 2016

No, I’m not talking about the calorie-burning exercises we feel we must do in the days leading up to and following Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Day of Carbs. Rather, I’m talking about a favorite, and seasonally appropriate, writing exercise.


The first story in Bill Roorbach’s Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Big Bend is titled “Thanksgiving.” The story begins with a phone call. Ted’s sister-in-law, Mary, is calling to convince him to come to Thanksgiving dinner this year. And because he has vowed to “become part of the family again,” he agrees to come—but he isn’t happy about it. By the end of the story, events have caused him, in a fury, to upend the Thanksgiving Day dinner table.


Roorbach’s story gives rise to a very straightforward writing assignment:


A character, in a fury, has upended the Thanksgiving Day table. Write the scene that causes him/her to do it.


What better tinderbox is there, emotionally speaking, than an entire family all gathered together for one night? I like this exercise because it isn’t quiet or subtle. There is no way to avoid conflict in a scene that ends with a flipped-over dinner table, especially on a holiday, especially the holiday during which we are supposed to give thanks.


Moreover, this exercise requires students to complete certain mini-exercises along the way, such as:

  • Writing a scene with multiple characters in it;
  • Creating a conflict that causes the climax provided in the prompt;
  • Providing sufficient detail so that we know exactly what is on that table prior to it being overturned.


I am thankful for this exercise, which students seem to have great fun doing. I am thankful for Thanksgiving for generating the sort of familial tensions that generate good fiction, and I am thankful that this is not the case in my family. And I am thankful for the leftovers in my refrigerator, which, I understand, really ought to bring about that other kind of exercise—the kind that doesn’t involve typing.


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 12/2/11.]] 

Essayist Dinty Moore says “the hand is connected to the arm which is connected to the heart” in an attempt to explain why writing by hand is instrumental in sewing the seedlings of great ideas that form and grow under the act of further writing and revision. When I first bring up hand-writing to my students, they often look skeptical, or wary to say the least. Some of them groan. Some of them say they will definitely handwrite at home. Most of them, though, do ask: “Why should we write by hand if we can type on a laptop?” And I have a few answers for them.


For one, writing by hand slows the writer down. While this may sound like a counter-intuitive hindrance to the writing process, it’s actually an element that makes for better writing, and a higher quality first draft. By sitting at the laptop or desktop computer, typing 40 words per minute allows you to write too quickly, moving forward and backward linearly, erasing any sign or record of your process, any change that you would be able to look over when writing with a pen on the page. By being forced to slow down, your brain has slightly more time to think about what it decides to pen. This allows for more real decision making compared to the writer at the computer whose hands type too quickly, perhaps glossing over a better idea that may have needed a few seconds more to percolate.


Another reason why hand-writing is paramount is that this approach creates room for risk and play, for less constraint. This is to say that there is something about a sprawling page and a pre-writing mindset that alleviates pressure for the writer, allowing them the space to try things on, to “just get the ideas down,” and worry about the meticulous details later. In Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, he emphasizes the importance of a writer’s journal, another arena where hand-writing takes place, arguing that it allows for the “freedom to try out things, to write clumsy sentences when no one is looking, to be prejudiced, even stupid. No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments.” Cartoonist Lynda Barry also supports hand-writing, explaining that students should write from their centers instead of their heads. Author and writing instructor Heather Sellers agrees that writing is a physical act, just like football, and so should be practiced physically with the same dedication and reverence that players hold for their sport.


As a writer who hand-writes herself, I can attest to a feeling that comes from the practice. It’s a feeling that comes after I’ve warmed up, after I’ve gotten a few paragraph down, and it comes when I’m hitting a stride, when I can feel my heart rate quickening, my writing becoming somewhat faster, when I know I’m on to something important. Though what I pen by hand is always a start and far from a finished, final draft, the ideas that come forward in the hand-writing stage I’ve come to realize are my better ones—the seedlings of greater things to come, planted by the pen in my hand.