By guest blogger Bob Sabatini
As long as I could remember, I wanted to write a book someday. Longer than that, even. I recently came across papers from my elementary and middle school days, and what do I find over and over again? Spiral notebooks with some scribbled sketches—I hesitate to call them illustrations, exactly—on the cover over a very carefully lettered “by Bob Sabatini.” Once I could steel myself to open them up, what did I find? A title page on the first sheet, and then—I kid you not—a table of contents, with chapters listed as “Chapter I” through at least “Chapter X” and space for yet-to-be-determined page numbers, followed by somewhere between five to ten pages of almost illegible scrawl. Following that, I’d find some notes, some doodles, a few half-completed homework assignments, and a whole bunch of blank pages.
That was where doubt crept in. “You’ll never be a writer,” it would whisper, “this isn’t any good.” It was the same story with a number of the writing projects I attempted in the years off between graduating high school and beginning college, I’d spend weeks outlining a story or diagramming character interactions, and then I’d start writing, get discouraged, give up, give it another try only to get more discouraged.
By the time I discovered that there were such things as creative writing classes, I’d hit on the notion of the short-form work. I remember saying glibly “I can get a good beginning and a good ending, but I have trouble with the middle, so I’m just bringing the two together.” Ok, so now that book that I’d write “someday” would be a collection of short stories. Except… my doubts were still wearing me down. I’d start fussing over my short stories, even the shorter middle sections wouldn’t cooperate with my excellent beginnings and endings, and I was still not getting anything finished. By the time I transferred to UNM, I’d given up on the dream that I’d ever write that book.
Ok, so how do you explain this?
This is me holding the final printer’s proof of my new book, A Play a Day Keeps the Grey Away. Clearly, something has changed. And as much as I’d like to tell you that change was brought about by some magic bullet or non-prescription pharmaceutical, the answer is about as prosaic as it gets. The answer, in fact, is something not exactly the same but freakishly similar to Writer’s March.
In the fall of 2009, I was in a playwriting class, the only objective of which was to have a 10-minute play ready for an undergraduate showcase to be performed the next spring. And on October first, I already had a 10-minute play mostly written. I had a fantastic beginning and an earth-shattering end, and I was fussing and fretting over the middle. In a one-on-one meeting with the instructor I was told, “Bob, you’re drunk on this piece.” He advised me to put it away before I worked it to death, and then gave me the most productive homework assignment I’ve ever gotten: “On Monday, I want to see ten pages of something completely new. I don’t care if it’s total crap, just as long as they’re new.”
What I decided to do was to write a miniature play, a scene, or some dramatic moment every day. Because the day I was given the assignment happened to be the first of the month, I decided to extend the project through to Halloween. So, just to review, one 31-day month, a commitment to write every day, a clearly stated daily goal and a ban on fretting over whether what I’ve written is “any good.” Sound familiar to any of my fellow Marchers? The result was 56 pages of new material, and—somewhat shockingly—very little of it was crap. It was one of the most freeing and generative times in my life, and once it was over, I was in a creative space that allowed me to write, very quickly, a completely new 10-minute play for the festival, better than the one I had been fretting over.
On a whim, I decided to try again in October 2010, and again found it to be a wonderfully creative and rewarding endeavor. What had once been a 10 page assignment became an annual tradition. In November of 2012, with four years worth of October plays threatening to bust the seams of the pronged folder I was keeping them in, the thought struck me, “there’s enough here to make a book.” All from making a commitment to write and then seeing that commitment through.
Now, those same doubts still whisper to me occasionally. “Your book is self-published,” they say. “It doesn’t have the cachet of having been ‘discovered,’ you won’t sell a dozen copies,” and so on. And here’s what I say to those doubts:
Some (play)Writing Prompts:
1—The “White Elephant” in the room.
This is an exercise in working out how characters avoid talking about what’s really on their mind. Decide on two characters who have some hot-button topic (for absolutely no reason at all, I’ll give “abortion” as an example) which is very much on both of their minds, but which neither wants to discuss. Write a page or two of dialogue (and nothing else) in which the topic in question is never directly mentioned.
2—Dust off the White Pages
Open a telephone directory to a random page. Scan the names you see and look for the first one that jumps out at you. If you see the name of someone you know, keep looking or go to a different page. Once you’ve found a name, write it down. Examine the name for some time without really thinking about it. Set that timer Sam made you get for 10 minutes and write a monologue: what that person would tell an audience about him/her self if she/he were one of your characters.
Read a poem, then read it again. Adapt it in some way for the stage. If it’s a narrative poem, put that narrative on the stage. If the poem is more image-based, hold a striking image in your mind and turn it into a physical place. Put characters you write into that place and see what happens. If the poem evokes a “mood” or “tone,” find ways to exploit/subvert/explore that mood with characters on a stage. The most important thing is to have fun with it.
Incidentally, to see one example of what can be done, you might want to check this play out…