My first published essay, “Lunchroom,” appeared in an underground magazine, The Teacher Paper, in 1972. After a short opening paragraph with a description of the setting and characters—two first grade teachers, Rhoda and Sylvia—the entire piece is in dialogue. The piece is a scene. A mini-play. A playlet.
Dialogue comes naturally to me. A conversation or a voice—overheard or imaginary—often propels me into writing. I hear voices. Had I not become a writer, I would probably be in a padded cell. Dialogue figures heavily in my essays and in my memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein. It makes up the entire theater adaptation of the memoir.
But dialogue is not the whole deal. A play is so much more. As a newcomer, I am beginning to discover the ‘more.’ So far, I see that in addition to dialogue, it includes what is unsaid, said between the lines, gestures, behavior, entrances, exits, and action. The dialogue depicts the characters, their conflicts, their world, and moves the story along, creating an arc, and hopefully capturing our common humanity.
Five ways playwriting is similar to memoir and essay writing:
If one is not a reviser, one is not a writer. With everything, I get out the kitchen sink, then mull it over consciously and unconsciously on walks, in the shower, in my dreams, and everywhere. It helps to be able to ‘kill off those precious darlings’ and delete or tighten whatever doesn’t move the story along or say something about the characters, and to begin or end a scene, a conversation, or even the entire play at a difference place than originally intended and not be wedded to those first bursts. In all my writing, I let time elapse to make the deep changes. I also jot down thoughts, ideas, and little bursts as they arise.
2. Trust others and your gut
I listen to and follow suggestions from a dramaturg I hired, to people who attended a reading, and mostly to my inner voice. Ultimately, the flashes that surprise, touch, and tickle me—that seem to come to me out of nowhere–are my deepest truths, my guides. And the greatest fun.
3. Write with passion and urgency
If both aren’t present, there is no point. I must feel what I am saying, feel something inside me pulling me along. If it is coming from my head, not my heart and gut, or if it sounds like a construct rather than emerging from me organically, I need to rethink what I am doing and where I am. My play is a labor of love. My passion. I am writing—and revising the play—first and foremost for myself.
The things I am most afraid to say are my best material. Writing around the truth does not work. It is necessary to confront it, head on. That does not mean grinding axes and wallowing in self-pity. It means showing a character’s vulnerabilities, struggles, and humanness. In doing so, as in all forms of writing, I hope I am shedding light on all our dark parts.
I write when I am perking. I write when I am not. I write much of the day during the week and on weekends. Getting there and staying the course are often challenging, but sitting alone in a room at my computer and watching it pour or dribble out is where I want to be. What happens with publishing, marketing, and producing is a whole other story. But writing is its own reward. In every form.
Playwriting is a calling. Who’s to say I am up to the task? When I’m engaged in the process, I don’t care. Here are five differences from memoir and essay writing I continue to discover.
There’s no ruminating or exposition
Everything is shared in the dialogue, between the lines, actions, and reactions. Not that there’s fudging in other forms of writing, but in a play, everything that is said and unsaid counts. One can’t afford to lose the viewers. Or meander. One cannot lose the threads.
There are more threads
More threads exist in my play than in my individual essays. My play is about many things, including mental illness, family dynamics, forgiveness, seeing the humor in difficult situations, learning how to love oneself, and learning how to love another. I like to think the threads are woven together. Meanwhile, my essays typically have a text and subtext, and they tend to follow one or two themes.
Writing is hard
Playwriting is harder than other forms. Harder because I am digging deeper. And must continue revising. Harder because I am saying more. And saying it without being explicit, without exposition, and often keeping it between the lines.
Different structure, different challenges
The different structure of a play requires learning new technicalities. For example, getting characters in and out of the room is difficult for me. So is jumping from scene to scene. Fast forwarding. And flashing back. All require new skills, 190% engagement and concentration, staying open to the process, and staying the course. Big time.
Staying the course—even when it’s hard
All writing requires discipline and stick-to-it-ness. Playwriting does so in spades. Having a big story, which I believe I do and I believe is very universal, requires constant and continual showing up. It’s hard. Exciting. Challenging. A roller coaster of a ride. I would have it no other way.
In addition to her memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein, Nancy Davidoff Kelton has written five other books including: Writing From Personal Experience. Her essays have appeared in several sections of The New York Times, The Buffalo News, The Boston Globe, Parents, Working Mother, and Redbook among numerous other publications. She is currently adapting Finding Mr. Rightstein for the stage. It is a semi-finalist at Garry Marshall Theatre New Works Festival. The monologue was accepted by the Woodside Players of Queens Summer Play Festival and will be performed there June 16.