People often have asked me about my philosophy as a writer, and what motivates me as a teacher. The following is an essay I wrote some time ago that may go to explaining a great of what I am about, and I feel it is a way for me to get a conversation going with you.
Good playwriting and good screenwriting are impossible without the ability to tell a story. Sounds easy enough. But, it is surprising to realize the number of number of beginning writers who have failed to grasp that one simple truth. To be sure, we can have motion picture melodramas and predictable trifles on stage, which pose no great intellectual challenge. But, even in these instances, audience enjoyment is impossible if they have not been entertained by a good story.
Too often, more time is spent on perfecting style over substance; attempting to razzle-dazzle audiences with action sequences or overblown dialogue guaranteed to evoke an emotional response , but which fail to hold up under close scrutiny. Good story telling involves the audience in the lives of the characters - their ups and downs, and most importantly, in the decisions they make, or fail to make. What makes a story compelling is when those decisions are life changing. We tell stories because we want to entertain, educate, inform, persuade or titillate. In short, we want to change people’s minds.
The ability to tell stories that captivate the imagination and inspire the listener/viewer in ways they might not have previously contemplated, is a gift. All writers have a responsibility to nurture that gift and develop it to its fullest possibilities. Beginning writers have to learn to ask the question, “Why?” The answer to that question will help them understand, “Who”, “What”, “Where” and “When.” Taken together, just as we have learned in Journalism, we have a story. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Well, “who is the chicken?” “Where is he going on the other side of the road?” “What is on the other side of the road?” “When did he decide to cross the road?” And, coming full circle, “why is the other side of the road so important that he must risk his life to get there?” “Who” decides character. “When”, of course, decides time. “Where” decides place. “What” decides conflict.
If conflict is the drive train of good drama, then character is its fuel. All good stories have a central character whose fate interests us, holds us. If we believe in that character, we will accept the story. Going back to our story of the chicken crossing the road, our attention is held by our interest in the chicken. We want to know the “why” of him. Okay, then we must make him a compelling chicken. We must give him traits; a personality. Then, we’ll give him Conflict, something to struggle against. And, finally, we’ll give him a goal; something to make the struggle worthwhile. This done, we have created a rooting interest in our chicken. We want him to cross the road. We cheer when the chicken outwits the wicked backyard cat and escapes into the woods; lean forward in our seats when the chicken arrives at the edge of the two-lane blacktop; cringe when the cars just miss him, cheer again when he reaches the other side; groan when a dog tries to snare the chicken in the grip of its jaws; breath a sigh of relief when the chicken escapes beyond a fence where the big dog cannot go, scream when the barnyard cat suddenly appears behind him, determined to exact revenge and have dinner at the same time; cheer even more loudly when, after escaping into underbrush, the chicken emerges on the other side and finds itself staring at endless fields of juicy seeds, handsome roosters and no cats, dogs or humans with stew pots.
Good stories spring from good ideas, and good ideas spring from fertile imaginations fueled by a writers’ willingness to be engaged in the world - tossed by it, embraced by it, changed by it. I believe writers should be well-read, exposed to a myriad of experiences and encouraged to see writing not as a vocation, but as an avocation. However, they should not simply think of themselves as artists – but as teachers, philosophers, folklorists, mythologists and theologians. This belief is tied to my earlier comment that a writer has a responsibility to his “gift.”
In the University, that means aspiring writers owe it to themselves to acquire as broad a base of academic preparation as they possibly can. They should think in terms of taking courses such as Psychology, Sociology, History, the Humanities and Philosophy and Logic. A background in these disciplines will help a writer in the shaping and determination of ideas and concepts that can serve as the premises on which their stories will be constructed. Writers who are grounded in solid Liberal Arts educations can learn to be better thinkers, stronger debaters and focused artists.
They have at their disposal the intellectual tools with which to craft their thoughts into a cohesive force for creation. Beyond the University, we hope these new writers will become artists who are prepared to engage the world; men and women who will be active participants in the great theatre of human progress. We want them to become engineers of social discourse and progress. Writers are the antennae of their society. They have absorbed the values, mores, ideas and customs of their communities and, through their work, have placed these social constructs on stage and on screen in an effort to allow us to see our society at work. What must be changed? What must be allowed to remain the same? How has mankind changed? If there has been change, are we the better for it? Shakespeare, Ibsen or Chekov, all wrote about human folly, social change, and issues of life and death. They all forced their audiences to ask questions about the world of their times. And they all depended on strong storytelling skills. There was nothing haphazard, coincidental or happenstance about their work. Good storytelling depends on observation, skill and a strong point of view. Euripides wrote a drama about war. Nothing new. Many playwrights before him had done the same thing. But, Euripides changed the perspective. His anti-war drama was not written from the point of view of the victors; instead, it presented us with visions of what it meant to be the survivors among the vanquished. How do you see your sons, husbands, fathers, lovers slain before your eyes? How do you see your daughters driven mad by the trauma of rape and conquest and visions of an apocalypse soon to engulf victor and vanquished alike? How does the madness of war make even victory taste sour in the mouths of soldiers who must now shackle helpless women and children in chains and deliver them into a slavery from which few will ever escape?
The anguish of TROJAN WOMEN did not make Euripides a popular writer in his native Athens. He presented a view of war and of a proud moment in Greek history in such a way that he found himself vilified and nearly imprisoned. Five thousand years later, TROJAN WOMEN is still performed and still venerated as a seminal work about the waste and, in the age of Syria and South Sudan, still speaks to us of the horrors of genocidal conflict and of the waste in lives and human potential. I want to teach young writers to be the Euripides of the 21st Century. I know it is probable that none of my students will ever attain that lofty goal. But, if I can open up their imaginations; if I can bring to them the gifts of being good storytellers, with work that features solid beginnings, compelling middles and strong endings, then I will not have labored in vain. I believe I will have done my part in bringing to the fore young people who will be in position to tell some very strong stories; stories that will, in their own way, tell future generations as much about the 21st Century as my own generation has been able to tell about the 20th. In the end, that’s good enough.