Today I wrote what may be the three most satisfying words a dramatist writes: END OF PLAY. They went on the bottom of page 103 in Scene 12 of a new full-length comedy. (One only hopes there will eventually be audiences and if they materialize, that they will laugh.) This play’s working title is Callgirl, which I’m not satisfied with and will exchange for something better as soon as I come up with that something better.
I wrote the first draft in six months, from inception to that final triad, “End of Play.” Six months is the fastest I’ve written a full-length play. In recent years I have moved writing to the center of my life and I figured if I was going to incur the costs to make that shift, then I was also obliged to improve my productivity.
In recent weeks as I arrived at the last scenes, I started to flounder and felt my confidence, tenuous on the best of days, ducking out on me. This was because I was within sight of the end but didn’t know what the end was. Often writers begin a script or novel having some idea of the ending but realize that the ending is likely to change because of what one will learn from the characters, or they have no idea of the ending but trust that one will emerge in the writing. The faith is that an ending will appear somehow, somewhere.
A quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. about political movements aptly captures this creative process: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” One expects that by the time the topmost step is reached, the landing will be visible, clear and solid.
Well I got to my top step and the landing was nowhere to be seen. I muttered, “Yikes! Now what the hell do I do?”
It was while perched on that top step, a bit paralyzed, that The New Yorker (April 29 issue) landed on my desk with an essay by John McPhee about, of all things, writing. Mr. McPhee obviously anticipated the trouble I would encounter with my ending and kindly wrote this essay to help me out. I’ll share two of McPhee’s observations that were for me almost spookily timely.
● “You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this . . . if you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you ‘just love to write,’ you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?”
● “For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something – anything – out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. . . Without the drafted version – if it did not exist – you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it.”
Fortified by McPhee’s advice, I started flinging out words to get myself to the end of the script. And it worked. This morning I have a completed first draft, a rough-formed creature that I can now revise and improve. What a precious possession. Even if I do know the ending needs work.
Don’t miss a thing. Subscribe to Duane’s blog and posts will be delivered to your inbox. Just click on “Email” in the upper right (under the “Stage Door” image) and follow the simple instructions. Only takes a few seconds. You’ll then get a confirmation email.