This week's blog is a bit of a cheat, since I'm using a writing prompt written by Winter Miller (www.wintermiller.com) from the Playwrights' Center. Check out their website for more cool things: pwcenter.org. But I think my playwriting friends will appreciate this exercise because some of it was inspired by Erik Ehn, who is an amazing playwright and teacher!
I haven't tried it yet, but I'm planning to this weekend. I may actually skip to step #2 where Erik Ehn's listing exercises are used. The lists generated grow into scenes in the subsequent steps.
I would love to hear from anyone who gives this a try. If you're too busy to dedicate 1-2 hours this weekend to this, just start with one step per day, or one step per week. Just DO something. Then, share your experience with me.
5 prompts to jumpstart your weekend writing
Let’s suppose you and I are spending an evening working together and I’m giving you some prompts to begin a new play. So, let’s block off two hours to get you writing. Before you make a list of all the reasons you can’t possibly… just say yes and plan when and how you will do this.
- Block out the time. Go somewhere or hide in your home if too many people need your attention. Get a babysitter if you need to (for them, not you). Remove all Internet access and turn off your phone. This is YOUR TIME. TAKE IT. And, now HAVE IT.
- I recommend a notebook and pen. There’s a more direct pathway from your heart to your hand to the pen to the page. Energetically, this is a pace you can keep up with. The other reason I recommend a pen and paper is that later, when you go to type your writing into the computer, you get another round of edits while you’re still in close contact with your initial impulses. As you type your words in, you can make changes and go in different ways when inspiration strikes you.
- It’s important to breathe as you write. When you hold your breath, you hold back your feelings. Think about it—when you’re terrified, you hold your breath. But here, you need your breath, and you want to be able to have access to your emotions. Your breath is linked to your emotional state. In a word: breathe. In two words: keep breathing. In three words: Keep breathing, pal.
- Drink water. Scientists (I don’t know them, so just take my word for it) have proven that water stimulates your thoughts. Other water-related activities that also do this are bathing, showering, washing dishes, swimming, peeing and drinking water. Peeing—next time you have a really good idea, see if you also happen to be peeing or showering. Anyway, when you write, drink water. Take a few sips every now and then.
- You already know this stuff, don’t you? You want me to get to the goods already. Okay, will do. You sit down and get your pen and notebook and glass of water and start breathing. Some of this stuff is going to seem off the wall, some of it, you’re going to say, this is stupid, I’m not doing it. But while you’re thinking about how stupid this all is or how stupid I am, just do the exercise. We’ve got two hours, so begin:
Write a letter to yourself from someone in your past (or present) who has said kind words to you. A favorite teacher, a family member, and just have them say some things they love about you, some words of encouragement. Spend 5 minutes or so on it. First name that comes to you, just go. Surprise yourself. I first did this exercise in a class with the very inspiring Karen Hartman and it’s got a nice effect on the biting voice in your brain that says “I can’t, I won’t! Never! You’ll never take me alive.” Or maybe that’s only my voice that does that.
These are riffs on writer Erik Ehn’s ‘list’ exercises, he is a wonderful teacher if you get the chance to study with him, do! Give yourself TWO MINUTES (time yourself) for each of the next tasks. You must keep your pen moving, do not stop to think. If you run out of ideas, just repeat the last word you’ve said until a new word enters your mind. So if all you can think of is peanuts, keep writing peanuts until the next word comes out of you. Make these lists:
- Make a list of at least five things you’ve never seen on a stage before that would totally floor you if you did. (For instance, very elderly people skiing; a baby wrestling a snake, etc.)
- Come up with as many lies as you’ve ever told a lover, parent or teacher (you can lie about your lies if you want, I’m not looking over your shoulder) (For instance here are some lies: I have horns; I will always love waffles; I didn’t see you there).
- Make a list of machines to replace people in the future and what they will do. (For instance a robot that cleans your oven and tells you a bedtime story). Remember to keep your pen moving, repeat if necessary, or make up a new word, just keep writing until your two minutes is up.
- Make a list of at least five things you never want to see on a stage! (For instance: a beautiful sheep who tramples teenagers for sport; an actor removing her liver with a knife).
Reread your above lists and circle any words that excite you. You don’t have to know why. Next, choose 3 of the many things you’ve circled and write them down.
Spend 45 minutes on this next part. Really push yourself to keep going, even when you want to quit. See if you can remain open and focused on this task. Take your three things from your list above. (For me that might be, very elderly people skiing, I have horns, and a person in performance removing her own liver). Take the first character who jumps into your head, give that person a name (ie JUANA). Now, write a scene in which JUANA witnesses another character (ie FRANKIE) doing any of the above things you circled WITHOUT being seen. Then have JUANA make her presence known to FRANKIE. What happens?
- Somewhere in the scene, one of the other things on your list comes to pass during the scene—what happens? How do they both react to this event or revelation? Are they surprised? Did they know it? Are they angry? Do they respond by force? With love?
- Take this scene as far as it goes and if need be, bring in more characters to engage with the two you have. Let them have real connections to each other, real conflict and real emotions and see where they take you.
- It’s okay if surprising things come out of their mouth—maybe they’re sexist or racist or have a Martha’s Vineyard accent or curse a ton—whatever idiosyncrasies these characters present to you, let them have it. Trust your impulses.
- Do not go looking outward on google for confirmation that such a person could exist, could make those choices. Just go with your gut and see where it leads.
Take a pee break/snack break/water break. Do NOT check your phone or your email Stay in this burgeoning world you’re creating.
Look at you, you’re almost in the homestretch for the evening.
Make a list of things that absolutely terrify you. (For instance, Nazis; an angry bear). Write continuously for one minute. Now, take one of your characters from the scene you just wrote a few minutes ago (JUANA or FRANKIE), preferably the one that is least like you. Write down this character’s name. Take that character and now have a you-like character approach this first character and begin to insult them for their beliefs, their appearance.
- How does your first character respond to the second character’s insults? Do they fight? Is it verbal? Physical? What happens?
- Let your impulses dictate whatever the conflict is, but do not shy away from it. See if you can get as down and dirty with these two people. See if you can go somewhere that feels IRREVOCABLE with them. Then, at some point in the scene, one character will turn to the other and reveal an important secret. Then what happens? (40 minutes)
Before you pack up your stuff for the night, make a list of everything you know about this new play you’re beginning. Could be characters’ names, location, time of day, geographical spot in the world or galaxy, a need, a piece of clothing, a desire, a repeated physical gesture, anything that could be in this new world of your play, no matter how far-fetched or banal, put it on the list.
Your time is up. You made it through your Friday writing session.
Come back again soon.
About the author
Winter teaches writing in groups and offers individual coaching and prompting to writers of all levels and in most geographical locations (Skype—like being there, but faster and in sweatpants). Winter will work with you on starting a new project or in detangling one you you’ve been stuck on for weeks. Work can be ongoing weekly (like therapy, but with pages!) or in consultation on a full draft of a script. References available, just inquire winter[at]gmail.com. For a bio and other treats, www.wintermiller.com