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Don't Write In a Vacuum


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Let's face it: there are times when working in a vacuum is the only way to go. Like if you're a scientist and want to accurately measure the speed of light, you'll want to do so in a vacuum. But if you're a writer, it's freeze-dried death.

Freeze-dried Death?

OK, maybe death is too strong a word. Maybe not. Both death and the kind of isolationistic writing process most of us have employed at one time or another retard growth: one retards our development as writers, the other everything else. But one thing is certain, and that is both involve fear. Fear keeps us locked in our rooms for months and years, typing away at our masterpieces that we are sure will alter the course of Twenty-First Century drama-at least for some. For others, the reasons are antithetic.

Vacuum Writers: the Two Types<

Type I: Those who have watched the movie D. O. A. too many times

By D. O. A. I mean the Eighties remake with Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid, and Daniel Stern. In it, Dennis Quiad is poisoned by a slow-acting, sans antidote toxin-a bad move on the part of his murderer since Dennis has enough time to figure out who done him in. After many red herrings that lead to many people getting killed, Quaid's character discovers that it was his close chum at the university, played by Mr. Wonder Years, who wanted him out of the picture. Why? Because Stern's character read a novel written by one of Quaid's students that was so brilliant, he devised (and 90% carried out) a plot to kill all who knew the real author's name. Once everyone was out of the way, he would then publish the book as his own.

Wow. After seeing that movie, I didn't want a soul to read any of my writing ever. . . which makes getting produced difficult. It's not easy to convince the artistic director of a theater to produce a play he or she is not allowed to read. But the subtext here is that some writers (typically those who are starting out, but not exclusively) are afraid that people will steal their ideas and their work because they are so darn good.

Type II: Everyone will hate my writing and hate me for writing it

There are those who are genuinely self-conscious about their writing-so much so that it prevents them from allowing others to read and critique it. For some it is as much a phobia as experienced by those who fear public speaking, the one activity many people fear more than death (there's death again). Every writer can empathize with such feelings unless you're a Delusional Type I, a special case that is beyond the scope of this article and more belonging to a psychology blog. Writing is a very personal activity, made even more so if you made the mistake of going autobiographical. For this type of writer, a criticism of his or her play is tantamount to a personal indictment. I know because. . . well, maybe the author of this article was once that type of writer, and maybe he knows it can be overcome with practice and some sedatives.

Why You Shouldn't Worry

There are very good reasons why both types of vacuum writers shouldn't worry. For the Type I vacuum writer, in time they will realize that there is not a global conspiracy to steal their ideas. Does intellectual property theft happen? Yes. Are copyrights violated every day? Probably (I don't have data). Every writer takes a risk when they submit work to places like theaters, or websites, or readers, or friends like Daniel Stern. But the more you write and the more feedback you receive and the more plays you read and the more theater you see, the more you realize the flaws and imperfections and areas for growth in your own writing. Once that door has been opened you'll be less suspicious and more willing to share your ideas with others. Why sentence yourself to doing all the work? Use the releationships you've fostered; use the talents of writers, actors, and directors you know. Read as much as you can. If you do you'll realize that often the authors of truly great work were despised in their time. Steal it? People couldn't run from it fast enough.

The Perils of Writing In a Vacuum

The Germans are masters at inventing very specific words that convey very specific meanings, like Schadenfreude, the pleasure taken from someone else's misfortunes. I can therefore only assume that they have invented a word that specifically conveys the feeling a writer gets when someone reads his or her writing and tells them that it reminds them of something else. Chagrin comes close, even though it's French. Maybe chagrin paired with the compulsion to self-mutilate. I wish I knew more German because then I'd know for sure, but I've certainly experienced the sensation. This is one of the perils of writing in a vacuum.

If you write in a vacuum, you won't know what else is out there, even if you've read everything ever published. You won't know what's in development, and you'll miss out on the type of inspiration you can only get from human contact. Without this contact, you'll lose perspective on your writing. You'll become unable to view your script objectively, and you'll lose sight of the fact that drama is meant to be performed, not read, and that theater is a collaborative art form by nature.

Get Your Writing Out There

The fastest way to let some air into the vacuum is to invite people to read your scripts. You're not always going to like what you hear, but you need to hear it. You'll realize you must if you consider the alternatives. At best, your work will never see the light of day. At worst, your work will somehow make it to stage as a flawed piece of drama. The terrible feeling you get from hearing your work ripped apart at a reading cannot compare to the horror of watching a director and actors stand before a paying audience and breathe life into the Franken-script you've created.

So get your writing out there. Create questions you know need answering and invite readers to answer them. And have some fun while you're at it.

John DiFelice

wrting playwright playwriting humor

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