Thursday, June 7, 2012

Who Wrote This?

Every writer can tell a version of this story:

For one reason or another, you are called upon to look at some of your old work. As you go through it, a disquieting feeling arises. Lines are unfamiliar. You look at passages and can no longer remember writing them. The decisions that went into each and every word, decisions that lived in the forefront of your consciousness for months, or even years, are gone like vapor. There is a foreign quality to the whole project. You find yourself asking questions: What was the impetus for this scene? Where did these characters come from? In the end, it all crystalizes into a single, almost existential query:

Who wrote this?

You wrote it. You know that. And yet…it’s different now. The work exists apart from you. Maybe it would be more to the point to say that, now, it simply exists. It is no longer a-thing-becoming. It is a thing.

It is usually impossible to know when this transition happens for me, but not this time. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but I know I finished a draft of my latest play, Another Girl, on August 2nd, 2011. On May 27th, 2012 I went back to look at a scene. Somewhere in those 290 days, Another Girl had gone from being “my play” to being “a play that I happen to have written.”

The transition, however organic, comes with difficulties. The reason I went back to look at my play had to do with a conversation my agent had with a theatre’s Artistic Director. This AD really liked Another Girl, but was taken aback by the language in a particular scene. I don’t usually concern myself too much with problems like that (my work isn’t for everyone, not every theatre is right for my work), but several people I respect had spoken very highly of this woman. She has programmed adventurous work in the past. It was also the third time I had heard a complaint about this scene. I started to wonder - maybe I had missed something. I don’t mind shocking people, but I don’t want shock to be an end in itself. At the very least, it seemed to be worth my while to take a look.

My first response was horror. Not at the scene, but at the unfamiliarity of the whole piece, described above. Once I became acclimated, I started to see the play with new eyes. This is both good and bad. It is good to have perspective, but you don’t want to do too much when you are cut off from the inspiration that drove you to write in the first place. The scene in question, though, was a short one. I found I didn’t need to fully re-immerse myself in the world of the play to look at it critically.

It looked different to me. Part of it was probably the criticism I had heard, but I didn’t feel defensive. I don’t have a  problem disregarding unhelpful notes, but I didn’t feel like disregarding this. I still liked the scene as it was, but also saw the criticism was not without merit. I saw that the criticism wasn’t caused by prudishness, or at least that wasn’t the only cause. Looked at in a different light, I saw that the pathos of the scene might be compromised by the extremity of some of the language.

So I wrote a different version. I was actually surprised by how little I had to change. The arc of the scene, the humor of it, was fundamentally the same. It might even be better now.

I’m not sure yet. I want to live with the change awhile before deciding if I want to keep it. But it has been an adventure. You never know what’s going to come up when you go back to look at old work.

- John Yearley