“I used to be really into (fill in the blank).” That’s something I can say about a lot of things in my life—photography, running as a preferred form of exercise, making my own greeting cards, film seminars, a certain lecture series, chicken wings. You probably have a similar list. And if we examine how we abandoned these things, it’s not always because all interest in them is gone (in my case, excepting chicken wings), just that something else became more interesting or demanded more time. The activity wasn’t compelling enough to continue it through life changes, give it time when time is at a premium, or, most importantly, make it a priority. And once we stopped for a little while, it was harder to go back. We’d lost momentum and, perhaps more critically, ground.
In most cases, I chalk that up to life; exploration and phases keep it interesting. But in some cases, I regret that loss of momentum derailed something important to me. For example, when I lived in New Jersey, I was immersed in Deaf culture, fluent in sign language, and spent a lot of time at the local Deaf club—and then I had kids. I could take them to some events, but it became harder and harder to keep up with that aspect of my social life. As time passed, my skills got rusty, and then I moved to a new city, where to pick up where I left off would mean inserting myself into a brand new group (introvert nightmare) with those rusty skills. Plus, I was a single parent. It just seemed too daunting, and then the years started piling up. I miss this part of my life, but feel as though the ship has sailed. Do you have a similar story?
The importance of momentum as it applies to my life as a playwright has been forefront in my mind lately, because every time we lose some momentum, we lose some ground and, in this business, we can’t afford to lose either. I’ve always known this, but became hyper aware recently, when, after several months of diving into a new play, compiling research, dreaming of it every night, jotting down scenes notes and dialogue, I suddenly became waylaid by travel commitments and deadlines that not only kept me away from my desk but also made me so exhausted that I kept oversleeping on my usual early morning writing time. Before I knew it, two weeks had gone by and I realized with horror that I hadn’t done anything with this play—but that didn’t mean I was doing nothing.
I know that the vast majority of us are not supporting ourselves through playwriting, that other commitments enable us to eat and have roofs over our heads. But I also know that days—weeks, months, even—not living a playwright’s life can result in a devastating loss of momentum. This isn’t about “write every day”—because I’m a magazine editor, I do write most days, but it’s not the same—it’s about keeping the momentum for your work and your playwright life going, making sure you have left yourself a lifeline back, even when it would be easier to say “[This other thing] is more important right now, but I’ll get back to it.”
Here’s what I’ve got to offer, and I invite you to share what works for you.
1) Maintain your playwright identity. If writing seems too daunting, I read HowlRound (subscribe so it’s in your inbox every day—very little effort!) , the Dramatist, American Theatre magazine, the Official Playwrights of Facebook page; go to theater; read a play for a fellow playwright (to that end, a small pimp for Trade a Play Tuesday :)); read some Broadway reviews. Feeling like I’m in the game helps inspire me to want to be part of the game, so I make these things my ten-minute work breaks (instead of, say, Words With Friends).
2) Know that all playwright activity is good activity. A while back, I was heavily into a writing a new Christmas comedy and complained to my boyfriend that I just didn’t seem to have enough time when things got overwhelming at home. He suggested getting up an hour early every day to write, which seemed crazy to this night owl until I started doing it. Before anybody starts admiring my discipline, let me admit that I don’t always spend the time writing. Often, I spend it reading over an old play and making minor revisions, adding a few character notes for a new play in Scrivener, reading some of my research material, or submitting. But that hour before I have to get the kids on the bus is my time to be a playwright, however I choose to spend it, or whatever I decide to do after the kids have gone (the good news is that momentum from that hour often carries over). It’s just like financial advisers tell you: pay yourself first.
3) Submit, submit, submit. It’s my experience—and your mileage may vary—that submitting is a very important to maintaining momentum. When I’m submitting, I always have irons in the fire. I always have possibilities. And I always have need for new material. Recently, I read a playwright’s post that said something along the lines of “I haven’t been submitting and guess what? I stopped getting productions.” It seems an obvious corollary, but putting your work out into the world keeps everything you do dynamic instead of stagnant; stagnancy is the natural predator of momentum.
4) Be part of your local theater and playwriting community. If you are, actors and theater folks will constantly ask what you’re working on. It feels so much better to respond enthusiastically about your newest project than to say “Not much, taking a break right now.” And again, immersion into a world makes you an active part of that world.
5) Look at the big picture. Some 15 years ago, I was interviewed about maintaining a fitness routine, and this was my response: “Consistency is key. But consistency does not mean if you worked out five days last week, you have to work out five days every week for the rest of your life. It doesn’t mean that if you did three cardio workouts and two strength workouts for the past six months that you have to continue with that schedule. It does mean that you strive for the big picture—a lifetime of fitness. And that can mean that sometimes you don’t feel like lifting weights and do cardio for two weeks straight. Or that you spend a week doing nothing but 20-minute workouts because your life is out of control. Or that you spend the summer walking instead of kickboxing. It might even mean you—gasp!—consciously take a month off. None of these things mean you have failed your fit self; learn to be flexible and forgiving when your body and life need or demand it and always take pride in your most important accomplishment: You care enough about yourself to be fit.” I think it’s pretty easy to see how this philosophy can be applied to writing, how it encompasses everything I said in 1-4 above, and mostly how it’s really just a long way to say two words: don’t stop.
I hope you’ll share what keeps you going.