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.

Musings: Quarantine 2020 Writer’s Retreat

This isn’t going to be one of those incessant productivity posts that have been dominating Twitter and Pinterest, filled with motivational quotes and willful ignorance of economic privilege and reckless disregard for mental health.

It’s also… not not going to be a post about productivity.

Full disclosure: during the first month and a half of quarantine I found it incredibly hard to concentrate on anything. I found out that I would have to return home while I was on a solo trip in New Orleans, and I had to change my flights last minute when I was told I could not return to campus. Many of my belongings are still in my dorm, and it’s going to be a few weeks before I can get them back. In that time I steadily re-watched just about every TV show I’ve ever seen, slept at odd hours and woke in the middle of the night, and stared at the same sentence in a a book over and over again without being able to move on to the next one. I tuned in to most of my Zoom classes while I had them, but I felt drastically less engaged with the world, and particularly with any practice requiring intellectual rigor.

Aside from a little bit of tweaking and editing stories I’d already drafted significantly, writing was out of the question. With the world filled with things that make me angry, terrified, or just plain weary, I was struggling to find inspiration or motivation to sit down and put words on the page. I hadn’t been journaling, hadn’t been scrawling poems in the margins of notebooks, hadn’t even really composed a witty Tweet. I’m trying to gestate ideas for my honors thesis, but it’s been years since I’ve written a novel draft and I’ve become a much smarter writer since then⁠—smart enough to understand that writing a novel takes more than a single NaNoWriMo draft.

After school ended it still took me about a month to figure out my new groove. My twentieth birthday came and went, and as it began to really sink in that my summer⁠—and potentially my fall, depending on what my university decides⁠—would be spent in my room, with limited in-person social contact and very little to do, I elected to reframe my outlook on the situation. I’m lucky enough to have a home with good internet connection, my own bedroom, and parents with stable employment. My health is good, and so is that of my family. Although I don’t have a job of my own lined up for this summer, I can afford not to have one. I wish there wasn’t a pandemic, and I miss being able to hug my friends, and I’m angry that our country’s mismanagement of this crisis has led to thousands of deaths, and I grieve the experience I would have had learning a new city this summer. But since I have things so good, I have decided to focus on the positive side-effect of the whole situation: this summer, I finally have time.

The past few days, I’ve made some changes to my routine, creating my own personal writing retreat. I deep-cleaned my room and created a home office space within it. I’ve begun walking around my neighborhood for an hour every day, listening to music and allowing myself to engage with the lovely spring weather while maintaining social distance. I’m taking some free online courses: video editing and graphic design to gain some professional skills, and classical music appreciation to feed my soul. I’ve been practicing Spanish on Duolingo and in (admittedly) slow conversations with my mother. I’m playing my oboe again for the first time since high school. I’m reaching out to friends more (electronically, of course!), and I’m trying very hard to read more and read broadly. I’ve made agreements with a few of my writer friends to exchange feedback on stories and/or keep one another accountable about writing. I’m finally going to start submitting to literary journals. I feel really good.

Doing whatever you have to do to stay safe and sane is constructive. Everything on top of that is a bonus.

I signed up for Maggie Stiefvater’s virtual writing seminar and I’m very excited to see what insights she has to share. I’m reading craft books, but trying not to get too in-my-head about craft either. Mostly I’m trying to take in the world around me. I often write to process ideas I haven’t fully worked through, to answer questions I haven’t figured out yet and to find some new questions in the process. I’m hoping to document this process here as I write my way through the quarantine and hopefully emerge on the other side with something. It could be a few short stories, a smattering of poems, a couple short new stand-up comedy sets. It could be a novel idea, or a few chapters of a new project. Maybe I’ll dabble in stage writing or screenwriting.

But I know that perspective is crucial. I may not continue to feel this burst of energy, and I don’t want to be too hard on myself when that happens. I’m choosing to think about my work during this time as constructive rather than productive, and that frame shift is very important to me. Productivity is for someone else. It’s systemic, and economic. For me, constructive work feels more personal. I’m doing things that make me feel more confident as a writer and as a person. When I have to take breaks, and to recalibrate the way I did when I first came home, I am losing nothing by not being productive. Rest is constructive too. Doing whatever you have to do to stay safe and sane is constructive. Everything on top of that is a bonus.

I hope to use this space to keep track of my development as I try to write more, publish more, and generate ideas for my thesis project/next novel. Rather than adding to the mindless productivity buzz, I want to engage in frank discussions about the ups and downs of my writing and my life. I hope you’ll join me in this journey of self-construction.