Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Playwriting, Failure, and the Fear of Failure

I've been:
  • following the discussion taking place on blogs and among my Facebook friends in response to "The Real Reasons Playwrights Fail" by Mat Smart
  • thinking about a conversation I had with a Female Playwriting Friend (FPF) Monday night about writing and the fear of writing and the perils of making excuses or comparing yourself to other people
  • reading a New Yorker article on a Hollywood therapist who specializes in treating creatively blocked screenwriters and other artistic types
A lot of the commentary on Smart's post focus on how he is an inherently privileged dude -- straight, white, male, writing linear plays -- and therefore his experience cannot mirror that of other writers, who belong to minority groups or write less marketable plays. There might be something to this, but I think it's more complicated than just "shut up, straight white dude, you can never understand me."

FPF and I both reject the idea that there is something inherently different about men and women. And yet, there's an attitude that we see more often in men than in women -- the "If you just did what I do, you'd be successful too" attitude, which can morph into "I know the right way to go about things and you're doing it wrong."

FPF and I have been on the receiving end of this attitude before. A few weeks ago, a male playwriting friend (MPF) said to us, "What I don't get is writers who don't like to write, to sit down and put pen to paper." And we both felt personally indicted by this, even though it's not clear whether it was meant as an indictment of our work habits. This is, of course, very similar to Mat Smart's stuff about "you have to love" working on your play for six hours every day after working your 9 to 5 temp job, or else you're not serious about playwriting and are obviously a worthless weakling.

And unfortunately, I am easily persuaded by this. I see my friends working hard, working damn hard, sacrificing other aspects of their lives in pursuit of artistic success, and being rewarded for it. I do feel guilty about how little I write. Because I am prone to melodrama and overstatement, I am perversely drawn to pronouncements like "you must have an inner fire that compels you to write six hours a day, no matter what, or you will NEVER be a playwright!" Every year, I tell myself that this is the year I am really going to be a playwright, the year I hunker down and churn out the sentences, the year I read more than I ever have read before and write more than I read. And every year, I falter.

I'm afraid of failure, is what it comes down to. Afraid of spending all that time cooped up at my desk only to produce a mediocre product. But someone who says "If you just worked as hard as me, you'd be as successful as me" is also the kind of person who tends to be unafraid -- the kind of writer who is extremely prolific and will fail often and learn from those failures.

Neither males nor females have a monopoly on failing and learning from failure. But, I think, because males often start out from a privileged/advantaged position, they get the sense that they have more chances in life and it's OK to fail. Coming from a more precarious or disadvantaged group, you don't have that same comfort with error and uncertainty. I have never felt that it would be OK for me to fail; failure would shame me. To make a totally reductive generalization, male artists tend to be Bad Boys and female artists tend to be Dutiful Daughters.

So I'm trying to take some lessons from the New Yorker article, use some of therapist Barry Michels' tricks without having to pay $300 an hour to hear them from him. Some insights:
  • " '[Writers] procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write... Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he's answerable to, but it's not human. It's Time itself that's passing inexorably. That's why they call it Father Time. Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you're defying this authority figure.' Procrastination, he says, is a 'spurious form of immortality,' the ego's way of claiming that it has all the time in the world; writing, by extension, is a kind of death. He gives procrastinators a tool he calls the Arbitrary Use of Time Moment, which asks them to sit in front of their computers for a fixed amount of time each day. 'You say, "I'm surrendering myself to the archetypal Father, Chronos," ' he says. ' "I'm surrendering to him because he has hegemony over me."'"
  • Michels' patients often "[vacillate] between thinking [they] are God's gift to mankind and thinking [they] are garbage." This is activated by a mixture of "petulance, rage, arrogance, hypersensitivity, a sense of victimization, and, above all, a resistance to process."
  • Another technique is "Reversal of Desire," which "helps a patient face something he's avoiding and involves another silent scream--'Bring it on!'--addressed to an imaginary cloud of pain. while pushing into the center of the cloud, the patient says, 'I love pain,' and then, 'Pain sets me free.'"
I guess it's really all about acceptance and submission to a larger discipline -- accepting that time is passing, accepting the process, accepting the pain. And I love the idea that "procrastination is a spurious form of immortality" -- it makes you feel immortal while you're doing it, but when you die and leave no work behind, you're dead. Whereas writing may be a "form of death," but if you do it well, and leave a legacy of the written word behind, it actually can make you immortal.

And some of this is similar to the advice offered in this classic column about writing and womanhood and the fear of writing, which I think I basically ought to memorize: Write Like A Motherfucker

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a play to write. About sisterhood.

1 comment:

ER said...

I completely agree with Barry Michaels procrastination theory. Perhaps not to the point where i will be 'surrendering to the archetypal father' however I am learning new ways to get myself into playwriting.

I have decided to take an online course, and although I know that writing is most likely a skill that one cannot learn, but is an inherent talent that can be improved upon, I have decided that an online playwriting course will give me a physical answerable force - something which Michaels identifies as unhelpful when absent.