A Page A Day and You Might Have a Play: On writing right now

Every writer has a flaw specific to whatever it is that prevents them from writing. For me, it’s productivity.

I spent years demanding that I write a lot, every day, that I finish entire plays in a week, and if I wasn’t able to work at that speed, I’d become despondent and not write anything at all.

Basically, trying to write more usually led to me writing less.

Way less.

To make matters worse, I have a Google doc on my laptop with a list of potential ideas for full-length plays, and a year ago, that list was the size of a short novel.

It was impossible to determine which of those ideas to pursue, and knowing that my fatal creative flaw was probably going to prevent me from getting to any of them was sending me into a deep, uninspired stupor.

Then the pandemic hit, and I was convinced I would never write again.

After all, if I couldn’t muster up the energy to get work done during — well, not good times, exactly, but as good as times were probably going to get — what chance did I have as the world was collapsing?

All around me, I saw people talking about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague, and then other people were shouting down those people, telling them to let writers and artists do absolutely nothing for however long this was going to go on and that we should all be fine with that.

The problem is that writing and writing on a schedule are both very therapeutic for me, so while I  understood and appreciate the people telling me I should just put a pause on that for what would have been an entire year or more, I knew it wasn’t an option.

At the same time, I was still teaching students how to write, and they were struggling as well.

In most of my classes, when we work on full-lengths, I give students assignments in 10-page intervals. Ten pages is a decent-but-reasonable amount of work to get done, unless you’re Norman Mailer and a paragraph takes you nine years.

In 10 pages, you can get a sense of flow, characterization and where you think this writer is headed, and something about it just feels like a good day’s work.

Faced with the impossibility of asking anyone, including myself, to produce that many pages in a day, I shortened my expectations and asked my students if they could handle a page.

Just a page a day.

Many of them were grateful, but also, convinced that this was essentially surrendering.

How can you possibly write a full-length play if you’re only putting one page toward it a day?

At that rate, a two-act would take you an entire season, and even something clocking in at an hour would take nearly two months to finish.

Instead of worrying about the problems of longevity, I did what anybody not sure they’re doing the right thing does when they have the confidence of a semi-intelligent homosexual–

I doubled down.

My students were told they couldn’t go beyond the one page in a day even if they felt inspired to do more. Inevitably, if they started logging more than two pages and then hit a rough spot, they’d start beating themselves up for not going beyond the limit.

This way, they’d always have a manageable goal, although I would find out from some of them later on that there were days when even the one page seemed insurmountable. But they did it, because, they could tell themselves, it’s only one page.

I also told them that they weren’t allowed to even consider revising their work until their first draft was done, and that included going back to previous pages for any reason. That meant if they mentioned a character on page three and couldn’t remember that character’s name by the time they got to page twenty-three, they had to make something up as a placeholder and keep pushing on.

Well, all that was fine and dandy for them, but did I think I could actually do this myself?

I’m someone who hates revision, and my way around that is to revise as I go. I’m constantly going back to the beginning and working my way forward. And only completing a page a day seemed like not doing anything at all, so why bother?

Wouldn’t this way of writing lead to a chaotic mess of a script with no throughline? Something that looked slapdash because it was, in a sense, slapped together day-by-day?

Reservations noted, I pressed on.

And what I found was that, while I certainly don’t expect this way of writing to work for every writer, it just might have saved my creativity.

I’m always encouraging students to let their first draft uncoil as organically as possible, but as I said, the control freak in me usually never allows that to happen when I’m working on my own plays. Once you transition to a page-a-day approach, you don’t really have any control over where you’re going, or even where you’ve been.

You have to put total faith in the divine spark of inspiration and hope that whatever you wind up with when the time comes to do the first revision is somewhat salvageable.

At the end of a few months, I reached page 93 of my script and it seemed to … end?

I wasn’t sure.

Endings are difficult under normal circumstances, but with this new process, I felt like I was constantly evaluating whether to press on or bring it to a close.

A few weeks later, after I’d been away from the draft long enough to have some distance from it, I went in assuming that what I would find would be the equivalent of a theatrical crime scene: giant holes in the plot, characters with varying objectives, a mishmash of words that looks more like refrigerator poetry than anything resembling art.

But it turns out, I was wrong.

Oh sure, that draft definitely needed more revising than some of my previous work, but like I said, I tend to revise as I go, so who’s to say what a normal amount of revision is anyway?

I was sure I was going to have to chuck the whole thing and write it off as a facetious exercise, but what I wound up with was … not bad.

Was it good?

I mean, hard to tell.

Is anything you write good no matter how you write it?

The point is, I wrote it.

I completed something.

A play.

A full-length play.

During a pomeranian.

And not just me.

My students were completing their plays too, and they were finding that, yes, most of them were pretty decent and none of them needed total overhauls.

We all talked about how strange it felt to work this way, but also, it felt really great to adjust our ideas of what a “good day’s work” looks like.

So often, as writers, we dismiss the idea of work-life balance, even when we have a day job on top of the work of writing, and we become our own unforgiving taskmasters, demanding more than we can ever do, and then asking for more anyway.

Learning to write this way is still something I’m working on, but I’ve kept working at it, and I’m not sure I ever want to go back to the days of trying to produce 10 pages for a week straight even if it does expedite the process of bringing an idea to life.

We tend to have a fascination with work that’s completed quickly. We love hearing a playwright say that they finished something profound in only a few days. Elizabeth Gilbert did an entire TedTalk about how once the muse visits you, you need to get that idea down on paper as fast you can or risk losing it.

Like everything else pre-pandemic, writing plays and making art seemed subject to a time crunch few people could ever seem to master.

So maybe as we start to move toward thinking about how we want to create in the new world we’re entering, we can be a little more forgiving of ourselves and entertain the possibility that while life is short, that doesn’t mean we should work faster to try and catch up with it.

But maybe learning how to do that is something we can take day by day.