Musings: On Playwriting During a Pandemic

Ever since COVID-19 struck, I’ve been in something of a creative bind. I have been lucky enough to stay personally safe, healthy, and stable, but I couldn’t figure out what to write, or how to write anything, really. I attended a virtual writing workshop with Maggie Stiefvater to learn more about how to put together a novel, I started keeping a journal, and I tried to motivate myself to read. I even wrote another post all about my plans to start being constructive rather than productive in my writing life. But still, I wrote very little and disliked most of it.

The key problem was that I couldn’t find a way to write about all the things I wanted to without feeling dishonest. I have largely been insulated from the worst of 2020. The world was falling apart and I was mostly confined to my childhood bedroom watching Netflix and staring in horror at the latest catastrophe on Twitter.

How could I possibly write at such a remove? Should I write as though the pandemic was not happening? But wouldn’t that be a dishonest reflection of the world I’m in? In the flurry of questions and contradictions I felt the uncertainty of J. Alfred Prufrock bubbling up within me: “And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?”

And then my classes for fall began. I have never written a play before, and I’m now in a playwriting class where I’m expected to write and revise a full-length play by late November. The pressure is intense. I’m reminded of my earliest times participating in NaNoWriMo, when I didn’t yet know how much I could write, how fast I could write it.

Playwriting presents a unique challenge. I have to tell a story mostly through dialogue, which I don’t usually think of as my strong suit. I need to make my characters feel distinct enough on the page that the actors who might one day portray them can feel out their own interpretations. I must imagine the action of my story in space, in time, carried out on a stage with an audience.

This new medium is exactly what I needed to galvanize my creative process. It has enabled me to think differently, and to come up with different narrative solutions to my current problems. I decided to tackle a different social issue than the pandemic, one that has been at play for much longer: the erosion of public trust in truth, rampant misinformation and disinformation, and an insidious rise in conspiracy theories fueled by confirmation bias. I was able to settle on a metaphor that I’m quite enjoying to bring this abstract issue onto a personal scale and a concrete presentation. The pandemic isn’t exactly gone in this story, but it looms over it, a fatal consequence of a government that puts more stock in hoping problems go away than in working with facts and science to actually mitigate their harm.

The lesson I’m learning is that if one thing (in my case, fiction) isn’t working out for some reason, it’s worth trying something new and different (playwriting, or maybe another form or genre down the line too!) to shake up the creative process. Metaphor is the key tool of fiction and drama both, and in drama I can exaggerate on a whole new level. I’m hoping I’ll get more ideas for short fiction soon, but in the meantime I’m enjoying this foray into a new sort of writing.