In the summer of 1985, I was invited to stage a play-in-progress at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. It was a momentous occasion: a collaboration by three leading playwrights in the Asian American community, it was one of the Festival’s highlights.
If you’ve ever tried to get one writer—let alone three writers—to finish a creative project on time, you’ll have an inkling of how this gig played out.
Now that I have returned to writing after a career in theatre—where the curtain goes up, ready or not—I understand why writers procrastinate even if they were burning with inspiration the day before. Because inspiration is like a firefly: you catch its beauty in the moment and then, it’s gone. Winked out as if it never was. Unlike theatre, we have no props or sets to simulate reality for us. We have nothing but words.
The following summer, the director of the Festival invited me to return as a co-director of a workshop for emerging playwrights. Over the course of two weeks, I co-led the project to facilitate the creation of short works by the playwrights and to stage them on the last weekend of the Festival.
I no longer remember what any of the pieces were, but I vividly recall an exercise that called for the animation of items in a refrigerator. The writing was fresh across the board. The refrigerator characters displayed all the peevish unpredictability of human captiousness or the nobility of human magnanimity. They were by turns hilarious and poignant, menacing and courageous.
The writing was fresh in part because people wrote from a stance of “Game on!” But it was also fresh because the exercise was unexpected. It came out of the blue, and on a day when everyone was ready for “Game on!” creativity.
I am not an advocate of writing prompts though I know many writers who love them. I find they stifle my imagination; but more important, they stifle my voice. Like the taste or texture of certain foods, the appeal and draw of such exercises is purely personal. What appeals to one writer is anathema to another. I’ve taken classes and been in groups where prompts were the primary means of eliciting stories from participants. In the end, they never took me farther than the idea I’d manufactured to fit the prompt.
I want my work to breathe with its own rhythms and cadences, to find resonance with readers, to be alive. For me, that means working from the inside out, not from the outside in.
I imagine a writer who loves prompts could argue, “Well, you take the seed of what you created from the prompt and bring it to life.” Fair enough. I have something to say about seeds a little later on. But this particular way of generating one doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t give me access to my voice.
One thing I’ve known about myself, from the time when I was old enough to understand such things, is that I have a writer’s voice. I may never write brilliantly, but I will always write with a voice that no other writer has.
I thought I would grow up to become a playwright. Instead, when I grew up, I became a theatre director. Directing is not my forte. I don’t have the kind of personality that does well with large groups of people in need of a therapist. Directing is as much about keeping track of everyone’s mental health as it is about presenting the playwright’s vision of the play.
Although I was never keen on being company therapist, I did love working with actors. In reality there’s no such thing as a lazy actor, only an arrogant person who believes they don’t have to work as hard as everyone else to make the production a success. If you’ve never spent time in a rehearsal room, actors are extraordinary. Writers have a difficult time with rejection letters; but an actor is often rejected before they can utter a word in the audition because they’re the wrong physical type.
(If you haven’t seen Tootsie, I recommend it. Also Dustin Hoffman’s interview on why he made the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPAat-T1uhE)
Actors are extraordinary because they always bring everything possible to the character. In early rehearsals most of what they bring doesn’t work. The actor knows this and the director knows this. The secret is to jettison what doesn’t work and build on the kernel that does.
My job as the director was threefold: to be true to the playwright’s intent; to be true to the actors; and to be true to the audience. That was a lot of truth I had to live up to and fulfill.
The same can be said for writers: we have to be true to the intent of our story; we have to be true to our characters; and we have to be true to our readers. The difference is that we have to do all of this by ourselves. We are a one-person ensemble without the luxury of external props, sets, lighting, and actors to carry the burden of our tale that must be told. Which brings me to voice.
Underpinning everything that comes together to make up our story—those characters and settings, landscapes and themes—is our voice.
Voice is the least understood aspect of writing because it cannot be defined. When agents and publishers say, “I don’t know what I’m looking for but I know it when I see it,” they’re referring to the writer’s voice.
Because voice is impossible to define, sometimes you’ll read or hear someone say, “Either you have it [voice] or you don’t.” I read this recently as a reply to a post on a well-known literary agent’s blog. Well, I’m here to tell you that you have voice whether you like or not, and whether you believe me or not.
I’m also here to tell you that your voice is impossible to pin down because it is nothing less than the content of your heart and mind and soul.
Remember that seed in the rehearsal room I mentioned earlier? That seed was the character’s heart and mind and soul the actor wanted to access, in order to bring the character to life in performance. That seed is what makes us unique. It is the reason no one can tell you: “Your voice is wrong.” Your story’s narrative voice may be wrong for the story, but your voice can never be wrong.
If you junk everything else in this post as “not for me,” remember this one thing and you’ll be ahead of the game: Your voice can never be wrong. Never.
I haven’t said much about a writer’s voice because I want you to listen to your voice—to your heart and mind and soul—to tell the story only your voice can tell. Sometimes that story begins with a personal blog post. Sometimes it begins with “Once upon a time.”
However it begins, let it begin with your voice. Because your voice is never wrong.