On Women Writing, and Writing Women

My MFA program was hit or miss in terms of instructors, but I got stuck with a hard miss on several occasions. This one professor taught all but one of my playwriting workshops, and had a field day throughout my two years there teasing me about only writing female characters. He'd rib me about only wanting to torture men onstage, rib me about writing yet another script that had mostly if not entirely female casts. "You know what I want you to do next quarter?" he said to me once. "I want you to write a good, kind, likable male protagonist." 

Yes, he really said that. Yes, my eyes about rolled out my damn head. Yes, I was livid inside. Yes, all I said outwardly was, "I think enough of those have been written already." 

On another occasion, he said to me, "I don't know what's going on here, but I know there's something going on." By then I knew this professor well enough to assume he wouldn't get it. Once, in lieu of notes on a script, he told me my writing reminded him of the early plays of a famous male playwright. "I struggled with those, too," he said. "I suppose you should take that as a huge compliment, though."

I suppose I should have taken it as a huge compliment, but his phrasing certainly didn't seem like he intended it as one.

I spent my whole MFA politely disagreeing with this professor in class, righting his wrongs, doing everything within my quiet power not to let him tragically mislead other writers with his notes--notes that were bad, primarily, because he could not conceive of what another writer was attempting to do, could only approach work from his own position, his own preference. He couldn't make sense of my work because I wasn't writing for him, and I wasn't writing what he would write. Not only that, he couldn't give me notes because he knew I wouldn't take them, and because he knew my writing was good, even if it seemed untouchable by him. 

Another man, another occasion. "They all have so much strength," he said to me. "I just don't know how that's going to work out." He was referring to three of my female characters. We continued talking, his opinion became clearer: he simultaneously found these characters' objectives 1) unclear and 2) too strong for there to be true conflict.

These, in themselves, are conflicting pieces of criticism. Good writers are taught that the best conflict is characters with strong but opposing objectives: two people who want two different things with the same desperation. A child wants to go out and have fun with her friends; a mother wants her daughter to be safe. Two people, two strong objectives, instant conflict. I didn't know how to make sense of the criticism that my characters were simultaneously too strong and not clear.

But how can you reason with a man when he knows nothing of the strength and the opacity it takes to be a woman? Simultaneously too strong and not clear enough--ain't that what I feel every damn day as a woman in this world? So in this sense, I'm succeeding. I became a writer because I couldn't find many women to identify with in the entire dramatic canon written entirely by men. I became a writer to write women like me--too strong and yet somehow still not clear enough, not to herself, and not to others. If that professor doesn't get it, I'll count it a success: he doesn't want to get it, and I and a world full of women couldn't make him try.

There's a hackneyed idea that women's stories meander more than men's; that when a woman tells a story, she includes a lot of seemingly meaningless details or tangents that some (re: men) consider fluff that doesn't add anything to the story. Our collective artistic consciousness is so fucked by being told the same stories over and over again: we don't know what it looks like to see life through another's lens. Well, some of us do--every day I judge myself by the standards of a lifetime of male-driven stories, and every day people of color are forced to navigate what a lifetime of white stories have taught them. Some of us have only ever seen life through another's lens, and we suffer for it over and over again.

Sometimes I don't even know how to talk about what life is like as a woman. I don't have the words for it until I carve them out, craft them, build them up out of nothing--and then, they usually seem to fall short. How can I explain what it feels like, to write characters you love only to hear that someone doesn't get them, or that they're too strong? How can I explain the strength it takes to let some man critique your inner world, the strength it takes to hear "she's too strong" which is effectively "you're too strong," and how utterly weak I feel for a moment every time some man doesn't get what I'm talking about?

A lot of the time I'm not clear--on myself, on my characters, on our objectives. Something is going on here, you're right about that--and you don't know what it is, and sometimes I feel too weak to try to explain over and over again.

I'm not perfect, and I still have a lot to learn in this life--but I'm a damn good dramaturg, and you want me to read your scripts if you want helpful feedback. Why? Because I push myself to understand where the writer is coming from, and I spend my mental energy figuring out how to help them communicate the thing they're already trying to communicate. I don't act like every piece of dramatic writing is intended for me: I act like there are billions of people out there, and if I want to learn from them I better intend to try to see them, hear them, appreciate them.

On Staying Hungry

[This is an old piece of writing from September 2012.]

I went to see a Broadway play tonight. When I first moved to New York, I saw many a Broadway play, mostly because I was getting free ticket offers for them. Slowly, as I spent more time here in New York City, as my work became about doing different things than the things being done on Broadway, I stopped seeing Broadway plays. In an act of bad theatre studentship, I couldn’t remember the last thing I’d seen before tonight--but whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t on Broadway.

I won’t name the play I saw, because this isn’t a review of a Broadway play. I saw a Broadway play that is incredibly relevant to the times right now, that was an adaptation of a play by a very famous playwright, and that had a cast of people who’ve been doing plays before Broadway. These are the makings of a good night at the theatre.

And it was. It was a good night. It was so fucking good that that’s all it was. There were bad parts, and there were parts that were better than good, but it all evens out to being so fucking good that I found myself pounding out the words faster than my fingers could find my notebook: stay fucking hungry.

I want to watch something that’s hungry for something, for anything–-for understanding, for change, for humor, for disgust, for answers, for questions, for any god damn thing. We’re called starving artists for a reason: if we’re not starving for something, what’s the fucking point of doing it in the first place? The artist must always be hungry. Food is a valid hunger! Real, honest-to-god, no-metaphors-involved food is a valid hunger. Hunger lends an edge to our art, whatever that art is. You don’t have to be poor to be a starving artist, but you have to be starving to make your god damn art.

Most theatre I see today is hungry for the lack of hunger, hungry to be satiated–-no more, no less, not even desperate in its hunger, just slightly peckish. It aims to speak to everyone, to be understood by everyone, to land the jokes with everyone, to get the applause from everyone. Standing ovations riddle the theatre like a disease right now, because we’re all so scared of asking more from the artists on stage. People getting up there every night should be commended for the effort of getting up there every night: it’s fucking hard. But god damn it, those people should be held to standards of something, to be asked to make me think something, feel something, to be required to feel or think something themselves, before I get to my feet to celebrate them.

This politeness, this peckish theatre only serves to create a glazed-eyed, appropriately full audience. This sating will eventually kill off any real hunger anyone–-artists, audiences alike–-suffers. We will have a house full of guests who “could eat,” and they will eat just the right amount of dinner, and relentlessly praise the perfect helping they’ve been served, and they’ll leave the table politely conversing about the next moderately proportioned dinner they have lined up, and so on and so forth until they die a polite death, and people politely forget about both the diners and the chefs, and society moves on.

This Broadway play that I saw tonight was about how the Majority is a disease-–you read that right, the fucking play itself was about how the masses control everything by stifling it. There’s a whole speech in it about class not mattering, education not mattering, upbringing not mattering; what matters is a supreme dignity, a nobility of spirit that moves one forward at all times. And this play was done in beautiful period piece costumes, on a fucking rotating set, in a theater in Times Square, for $67–-and that’s the cheapest ticket. I saw it for free; the seat I was sitting in cost twice the price of the cheapest ticket. The supreme irony of it all!

I’m tired of theater that’s scared to be smart, that’s scared to be boring, that’s scared to be subtle and misunderstood. I’m tired of tactics that aim at the lowest common denominator, of considering what the stupidest person in a room might think, of wondering if someone who wasn’t involved with something will “get it.” Today, I helped rearrange a poster, and the main issue we had to worry about was whether or not people would read far enough to get to certain information. My response is: fuck those people!

I have to believe–-and let’s all take a moment, take a breath together, because I’m about to bare my soft, sappy core here for all the vultures of the Real World to see–-I have to believe that if you, the Artist, are making the work you are fucking hungry for, someone out there will love it. I have to believe that there are two people out there hungry for the same thing, that there are 30 people out there hungry for the same thing. That if you show the world what you starve for, what the pit of your stomach absolutely aches to find, the world will welcome you with open arms. I have to believe that we’re all hungry for something, and that only by allowing ourselves to say it, to speak the incurable hunger that we’re all carting around, to ask the questions that haunt us day and night, to make the jokes that only we find funny, to get up in front of a crowd and reveal what we turn over in our minds day in and day out–-that only then will anyone actually be making some god damned art.