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Embrace the bad to find the good

Whenever I try to write a worthwhile play, I find it helps to see just how awful I can be.

January 14, 2007|By Greg Kotis | Special to The Times
  • PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING: "I think about writing and not writing all the time," says Greg Kotis, the Tony Award winning writer of "Urinetown." His new play is "Pig Farm."
PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING: "I think about writing and not writing all… (Robert Caplin, xx )

Here's a short list of things I do to avoid writing: do the dishes; do laundry; do the Internet (, the Drudge Report); read the paper; install shelves; help my kids with their homework; follow the Red Sox; go to the gym; listen to podcasts ("This American Life," "Meet the Press"); call my friends to talk about not writing; write lists.

Since quitting my day job (a lifelong dream), I think about writing and not writing all the time. Every moment I'm not writing feels like an act of procrastination -- and that's pretty much most of my waking life. Even writing about not writing was, in effect, an exercise in writing-avoidance. Since I put off writing this piece for a while, you could say I put off putting off writing for a while. If you follow.

Writing should be exhilarating, and it often is, but only when it's done unconsciously. Natalie Goldberg, in her excellent "Writing Down the Bones," describes people lost in the writer's state of creative oblivion this way: "Their teeth are rattling around in their mouth, no longer tight in their gums; their hearts might be pounding hard or aching. They are breathing deeply. Their handwriting is looser, more generous, and their bodies are relaxed enough to run for miles."

Sounds good, right? Disappearing into an altered consciousness where characters and dialogue appear without effort and one becomes more of a stenographer than a storyteller is the necessary condition for writing something new. If good theater is a kind of magic, the conjuring must begin with the writer.

Here's the rub: Achieving this imaginative state at will is tricky, if not impossible. At least it is for me. More often than not, writing is tedious and depressing. Every slurped coffee, passing bus, or stray thought becomes an unbearable distraction. One begins thinking existential thoughts like, "If I work on my typing speed, perhaps I could temp again." Avoiding such thoughts is what keeps me vacuuming.

Recognizing one's writing as bad well before the ink has had time to dry is a familiar experience for most writers. Paradoxically, it is the very act of recognizing one's writing at all that keeps it bogged in the morass of self-doubt.

If good writing means succumbing to the hypnosis of your own project, bad writing (or a bad writing session where no actual writing takes place) means standing apart from your project and ridiculing it as a skeptical mark ridicules an unconvincing carnival barker.

According to Goldberg, "It is important to separate the creator and the editor or internal censor when you practice writing, so that the creator has free space to breathe, explore, and express." Figuring out how to do this -- to cast this magical focusing spell on oneself -- is the secret art that leads to creative productivity and a filthy apartment.

I try to write good plays. But when I try to write a "good" play, the kind of play I assume I'm supposed to write, I'm usually acutely aware of the badness of it, how little it looks, sounds or feels like the great writing of my playwright heroes ( David Mamet, Arthur Miller).

So here's how I cast my own focusing spell: Typically a few weeks into any effort, I abandon ship, throw the steering wheel out the window, embrace the badness, write toward the badness, and push beyond the boundaries of where imaginable badness can go. I make the monologues too long, the exchanges too arch. I might even arrange for all the characters' names to start with the same letter.

There is something very freeing about accepting the judgments of your inner critic, then providing that critic with all the evidence he or she needs to render verdict. Masochism? I think of it more as an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy of playwriting.

THE exhilaration of abandoning the effort to write well -- sort of like the fun in destroying a sandcastle you've just made -- leads to the desired oblivion. Eventually, the writing stops being strictly bad. It starts keeping to its own rhythms and rules and finally begins to feel sort of OK.

If I try to write bad enough I can sometimes slip into the true "creative voice" Goldberg talks about, leaving the critical mind behind to emerge from the writing session with stuff that I think might be actually possibly kind of all right. So if I try to write good, I write bad; if I try to write bad, I write ... well, I shouldn't say "good," but I do write, and that's the critical -- which is to say important -- thing.

Here's how my process connects to my output. Subject-wise, I'm continually drawn to the slow-motion destruction of the world as it's currently unfolding. This is what "Urinetown" and "Pig Farm" focus on, although they enlist different genres and approach the subject from different angles. Sustainability, and the impossibility thereof, in all its manifestations, is that mesmerizing thing I can't seem to look away from, try as I might.

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