Karla Keffer

“Embrace the bad to find the good”

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2009 at 10:36 am

Greg Kotis is a two-time Tony Award winning playwright (Urinetown! The Musical) and the husband of one of my favorite authors, Ayun Halliday (The Big Rumpus, No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, and the “Chief Primatologist” of the quarterly zine, The East Village Inky). I found this article the other day on a routine Googling spree and had a not so minor Eureka in the bathtub moment when I read the following:

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).

Ah HA! Ah ha, ah ha, ah HA! A big, huge, ginormous key to my writer’s block, right there! See, E.L. Doctorow is one of my favorite writers. I had the great pleasure of studying with him back in the mid-Triassic period when I was slogging through the MFA farce (and it truly was a pleasure to study with him – he had no patience for the whole “literary fiction” chokehold, and he gave me an A on my final paper on why On The Road sucks prairie oysters). I wanted to be E.L. Doctorow, and I spent years trying, and failing. I had no idea why, and no one to talk to about this. I was too ashamed. I thought I was stupid and uniquely crazy. I took this as final, incontrovertible proof that I had no talent. If I can’t write like Doctorow, then I have no business writing.

I’m sorry. Back to Greg Kotis:

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.

All right! Now this, I think I might be able to handle. Maybe.

I hate doing things badly. Especially writing. With acting, there’s this open understanding that even if you do things badly the first couple of rehearsals, you’ve got the room for and the capability to improve. That’s what rehearsals are for. For some reason, I’ve never been able to treat writing similarly. I know, I know, that’s what drafts are for. But I have never been able to shake the belief that if my writing doesn’t come out perfect the first time – and by “perfect,” I mean literary pantheon-ready, as if even Arthur Miller, say, woke up one morning and banged out Death of a Salesman on a lark – I have no talent. Period. And guess what happens?

Back to Greg Kotis:

[If] I try to write good, I write bad; if I try to write bad, I write.

I love Greg Kotis’ plays. How can you not love a musical with a song called “It’s A Privilege To Pee”? Or a holiday play in which Santa is a polygamist who smokes joyweed? I love Arthur Miller, too, but the few times I’ve seen Death of a Salesman I’ve been acutely aware that I am watching a Great Play by a Great Playwright. With Greg Kotis, I can kick off my shoes and laugh my ass off and, yes, learn important lessons about class structure! (That sounds like I don’t think Greg Kotis is great. Let me define my terms: When I say Great Playwright, I mean when I mention Arthur Miller, I usually get a reverent “I loooooooove Arthur Miller, complete with requisite clutching of one’s heart. When I mention Greg Kotis, I usually get “AAAAAHHH! Greg Kotis! Urinetown! I love him! He’s so funny!” Both are great in their respective ways. Eeenyways.)

So I guess the trick for me, now, is to not fall into the trap of thinking I can write “like” Greg Kotis. We are, of course, not one and the same. I’ve got my own version of how “bad” looks, and I guess that’s what I need to learn to embrace. If I can. If I dare. If I don’t waste a whole day dicking around on Twitter when I could be working on my seriously bad sendup of Death of a Salesman, gods help us all.

(I’ll spare you the existential question of whether or not I should bother writing at all. That’s why I pay my shrink the big bucks.)


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