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Autobiographers and biographers might begin their books at birth. And chances are that was where their story began, “in the beginning God created’ someone.
But this beginning generally does not offer the kind of hook that will move the story forward. Authors often start too soon and tell too much. Choices…about structure, about where to start, and most importantly, about what to leave out…have to be made early on, whether to tell through exposition or action, or not at all. Everyone expects the author to make these choices; and most beginning authors start too soon. There is always a struggle here. Objectivity often gets lost; the author becomes enamored with what she or he has written and wants to keep it all. The plan disappears. It simply happens like that, and often we don’t even get to where we should’ve began. (When the two brothers actually start hitting each other, the plot can easily progress from there.) And from there the struggle can easily be identified. To see the two brothers fight is to know that there is something-serious going on.
But a playwright can’t accept what is accepted from a biographer of a famous person. The biographer’s canvas is broader. The playwright must work with condensed material; and given that he or she most probably will have to begin much later in the story than a biographer. Suddenly, perhaps for structurally reasons, or because an audience will demand it, the playwright has to move from exposition to the struggle. He or she has to decide to leave out much of what had seemed critical in the beginning and leave much of the back-story for the actor and the director to create.
The happiest playwright believes in collective genius. He or she must learn to trust other people. He or she must let go; he or she must be ready to accept the ideas of other people, rather than be the ultimate authority on his or her work. I like to take the stance that I know nothing. When asked, I like to say, “I don’t know.”
A few of my biases, Randy Ford
I tried for a long time to promote my play ON THE EDGE. Except for readings I arranged, it has not been produced. Maybe it is because of the nature of the play that it hasn’t been. Maybe not. In this regard, actors and members of the audience agreed that the subject matter and the explicit nature of it made the play difficult to watch; one friend even suggested that I change the ending so that audience wouldn’t leave the theater so depressed. However, positive responses from audiences and professors and readers tell me I haven’t written a dud.
The reasons why I wrote the play and why I would like to see it produced are the same. (One director shot me down when I said the play was important.) My promoting it has moderated, significantly, now that I have a theater of my own and can produce it myself. I no longer have to knock on the doors of theaters, present myself as a playwright, and have no one acknowledge me. So I no longer expect a welcome or that a business card or my personality will carry any weight, and I’ve decided promotional tours by and large are a waste of time.
The creation of a theater/creative community arts center in Tucson hasn’t been smooth and swift. From the start, and with me spending a considerable of my own money, there was a reluctance of people to participate in the effort, even after an initial expression of excitement and saying it (the venue) was something they had been looking for. For now I am content when three or four actors show up and we’re able to explore something new: of course with financial support we could reach out more. So, I may not have progressed as far as I might’ve hoped (my play still has not been produced and the theater/creative community arts center may still be in its infancy), but I am still me, naïve maybe, and I won’t give up. I still have my acting workshop this evening to give and feel some original ideas I have about acting are clicking. Original? I think so, but there is a good chance I’m wrong. The germ for my concepts came from Angna Enters, America’s first solo mime artist, with whom I studied under at Baylor University. She was fond of saying, “mime (to me movement also works) is everything the actor does on stage beyond words.”
In 1972, after spending five years oversees, my wife and I went back to Irving. I didn’t recognize my hometown; it had grown so much that the old familiar landmarks had been overshadowed by the new. (It didn’t help that my parents had moved.) In just five years my childhood landscape had disappeared, except in my brain.
Since then I have toured the old neighborhood, seen the house we lived in, but it didn’t look the same as I remembered. Trees had matured the same as I had. There were houses falling down by then. As a child, my world had been smaller (because I could ride around it by bicycle) than when I bought my car and my girlfriend lived in Dallas (even that world was smaller than when I left for college, and my circumnavigating the globe dwarfed that). Similarly, as my world expanded, my old neighborhood became smaller, or at least it seemed so to me. And that really forced to me to think about where I came from and the people around me then. What were their stories? Where were they? And what had happened to them?
It wasn’t until much later than 1972 that I became interested into putting the pieces together. And when I did I remembered bits and pieces of things that I had heard, often in passing, and had been hushed up. That’s what I have written about. I still don’t have any of the details of many of these things, things such as a possible murder and almost certainly incest. And many other secrets. The first time I wrote about Bobby I didn’t tell anybody that the play was about him; but people who knew him and saw the play instantly knew what I had done. In my most recent play called DADDY’S PARTY (about a family torn apart by physical and sexual abuse), as a side-story I used the drowning of Bobby’s sister, which one of my sisters said (she said) was a case of murder. My sister pointed a finger at Bobby’s sister’s husband, a prominent criminal lawyer who reportedly said he knew how to get away with murder. He therefore had become part of my landscape and fair game. He’ll never know he’s in my play; I don’t know the guy, and I’m sure he doesn’t know about me. My ignorance of the true story helped me out. It gave me freedom to make most of it up.
My childhood was rich, bright and dark, with incidents and people I can continue to write about. Your childhood is just as rich, bright and dark, which may seem very obvious, and it is. But when I was looking for something to write about, I didn’t immediately go to Irving. There are obvious reasons now why I didn’t want to. Some things are still too hard to face and raw for that. However, the further I move away, the braver I seem to get. Who knows? Maybe one day soon…
My desire to write today didn’t get me very far. It might’ve gone better had I not had so many others things I wanted to do, less important perhaps but more pressing than writing. There were things involving my wife and things outside my home…a battle with ants, a blown opportunity, a bicycle ride, telephone calls to this and that person.
First thing this morning I worked through a chapter I had been rewriting this week. This kind of work at my computer involved moving text around and cutting where ever I could, but I don’t have to think as much as when I’m starting something new. And it didn’t satisfy my desire to write. Therefore, for most of the rest of the day, I kept saying to myself “I must write; I must write.” Must? I have to write; I wanted to be left alone; I thought of several things I wanted to write about; but when it came down to it with only a little over an hour left, none of these ideas jelled and I was left with three false starts.
I still wanted to write. Only now I was very much aware of the pressure I had put on myself. I had wasted all day, was late for a five o’clock date…at that point I didn’t know for sure if I would ever get back to my computer alive; life is that uncertain. We all know that. My idea of a good day hadn’t materialized…as a dedicated writer and a very involved one at that. Good thing I was going to meet another writer and could perhaps expect a little sympathy. No, I didn’t expect to have a one-on-one with Faulkner, Grass, or Wolfe, though Wolfe with his “booos”, his “yos”, and his dashes and dots might’ve helped more than the others. Some times I could use a space-filler. Yes, I could hear all three of them groan, as I even now look for inspiration.
My assessment of where I am now hasn’t increased my confidence. My inability to come up with a suitable idea to write about has led me to simply write about something and, if I fail in my attempt to write about this inability, maybe there is someone out there who can tell me what I’m trying to say. And I only have one point, I think. If I can trick myself into writing a page by focusing on my inability to write today, then, as a writer, what do I have to worry about? Haven’t I said I can write about anything? Regardless how I’m feeling about myself and my ability or inability to write my tricking myself should translate into my having a good day,
There is no step by step formula that I know of for writing anything. But form is important and necessary. Something always begins and ends. There’s always something in between. Okay, there’s nothing new here. It’s obvious, isn’t it?
But without form, I think, a work feels incomplete. Is this always so? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know clarity of form not only enhances the work but it also makes creating it easier. And form is either intrinsic or imposed.
At my theater soon I plan to create a long improvisational drama with an actor. We have an idea for it. We like our idea, ample motivation for us to dive into it. And the very first thing I started thinking about was how to put it together. Does the piece need this or that? Yes, a beginning, a middle, and an end, but we will also need to be more specific than that. Thanks to Mr. Eugene McKinney’s playwriting classes I had stored in my brain this form: Preparation (filled with exposition or the back story) and the introduction of characters (also back story), Attack (or the point of attack), Struggle (internal or external, between two people or more and more revelation), Turn (or climax), and finally Outcome (or resolution). And a satisfying resolution is helpful. But please, no stated moral. I don’t need it spelled out. Nor does any modern audience, unless they’re watching a Mystery play from long, long ago.
Good night, Randy Ford